Irish-American Holidays: Beltane

Beltane is a holiday of bonfires.

Beltane is a holiday of bonfires.

We’re coming up on Beltane, which will fall either on April 30 or May 1, depending on your custom. This was once one of the largest Irish holidays, along with Samhain in the fall, and the two are linked, as Beltane celebrates (and seeks to encourage) the fecundity of nature, while Samhain celebrates the harvest.

Beltane fell out of popularity in the 20th century, although it has been revived throughout Ireland and the British Isles by the neo-pagan movement. To an extent, Beltane merged with May Day celebrations, and this seems fitting, as Beltane festivals seem to have started with rituals about cattle when Ireland had a significant herding population, incorporated rituals to protect crops as the country became increasingly dotted with farms, and absorbed labor rituals when Ireland became increasingly industrial.

I will take just a moment to sketch in some of the historic details of the holiday and will discuss its traditions, and then I’ll talk about it’s history in the United States. Firstly, the name Beltane is supposed to refer to fire — the Bel in the name may refer to the ancient Celtic sun god Belenus coupled with the ancient Celtic word teine, meaning fire. (I will point out that this is one possible explanation for the name; there are others.) And so the holiday has a lot of fire associated with it, especially enormous bonfires, which once cattle were led between, house fire were lit from, and sometimes people would jump over.

It is also a holiday of yellow flowers, perhaps also representing fire, or the light of the sun. Irish houses were decorated with yellow flowers for the holiday, placed across doorways and windows in garlands and bouquets; these flowers were even used to decorate cattle. The Irish also had a longtime custom of a May Bush, which was a thorn tree covered with flowers, ribbons, and other bright decorations. It was also a tradition in Ireland to visit holy wells.

May Poles also have a history in Ireland, a practice that was perhaps borrowed from the English.

Just as Beltane was mostly abandoned by the Irish at the start of the 20th century in then revived by neo-pagans in Britain and Ireland at the end of the 20th century, most of the history of the holiday in America dates to the last half century and is largely associated with pagan revivals. But elements of Beltane have appeared here and there throughout America history.

In 1892, the Irish American Weekly ran a long article about Irish May Day customs, implicitly to encourage the publication’s New York audience to follow some of these traditions, including decorating houses and poles with may flowers, as well as the May Bush. (The article mentions rivalries between neighborhood organizations about who would have the finest May Bush, as well as who could “boast the hottest bonfire”); according to “The Year in Ireland: Irish Calendar Customs” by Kevin Danaher, these rivalries grew so heated and so raucous that the practice was banned during the Victorian era.

In May of 1894, a park in  Trenton, New Jersey, offered May Poles for children to use; this was explicitly linked with Beltane in the Trenton Evening Times.

But it is in the 1980s that we start finding news stories about Beltane as a newly revived holiday in the U.S. The San Diego Union published a story about three area witches — neopagans who were reviving ancient Druidic customs, including the holiday of Beltane. USA Today ran a similar story in October of 1987, interviewing Selena Fox of the Circle Sanctuary, an Illinois group of that name that still exists (and, on further research, I discover my biological mother was associated with; Fox had some kind things to say about her when she passed away a few years ago). In this instance, Fox says of Beltane “Members of Circle Sanctuary celebrate by dancing around the maypole and planting trees.”

Ad so it went, every year or two, stories about contemporary witches and other neopagans and Beltane: The Columbus Dispatch in 1989 writing of a celebration in an area park;  the St. Paul Pioneer-Press in 1991 gathering modern Wiccans to discuss the pagan calendar; The Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel in 1993 writing of a South Florida Beltane celebration.

There was a literal witch hunt in Palm Beach in 1994 when city officials stared citing local pagans for having celebrations in their backyard — a zoning violation, the officials claimed in a Palm Beach Post story, as the pagans were running a church out of their home. The first violation took place on Beltane. This was during a miserable decade when there was mass hysteria about supposed Satanic ritual abuse, which was often conflated with neopaganism.

But Beltane hasn’t been limited to the neopagan community. I grew up with an annual Beltane celebration, in a manner of speaking. The In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre has had an annual May Day Parade, now 42 years old, that has elements borrowed from the Celtic holiday, including an enormous puppet representing the sun that is presented to the public at the climax of the event. (Parade-goers sing “You Are my Sunshine” as this happens, and it is unexpectedly touching.)

Various Irish groups have also started to revive Beltane. The Niagara Celtic Society and Festival has an annual Beltane Bash benefit, while WaKeeney, Kansas, has an annual Beltane event called Th’ Gathering.

It’s easy enough to revive Beltane in your own home, as the customs are relatively simple: Yellow flowers around your doorway, and, if you can manage it, a bonfire in your backyard or in a legal public place. You might also choose to decorate a May Tree — try to do it well enough that your neighbors become jealous enough to consider stealing it from you, which would happen now and then in Ireland. But here are a few more traditions you might consider:

1. Oatcakes. The humble oat cake is mostly associated with Scotland, but the Irish have made and eaten Scottish-style oatcakes for eons. Scotland has a tradition of eating oatcakes on May Day — they’re called Beltane Bannocks, and I find some evidence that this tradition may have spilled over to Ireland. There are a variety of recipes online, but all are essentially savory oat cookies.

2. May Baskets. In County Cork, little girls carried around brightly decorated baskets and begged money with them. There was a similar tradition in America, but used for begging kisses, that sadly is falling out of use. The process was simple: You would decorate a basket and fill it with flowers or eggs and then leave it on the doorstep of someone you had a fancy for. If they saw you do it, they could chase you down and demand a kiss.

3. Watch “The Wicker Man.” This was, I have discovered, my biological mother Patricia Monaghan’s Beltane custom. I have wacthed the 1973 British horror film (not the recent remake) every year at Halloween for decades, but I think Pat had it right — it’s a Beltane movie.

The story tells of a May Day festival in a Scottish town that has reverted back to paganism, but despite the fact that it is set in Scotland, the film’s practices are drawn from throughout the British Isles and Ireland. (One fellow eve dresses as the Salmon of Knowledge, a figure from the Irish tale of Finn MacCool; a classroom scene has Irish written on the chalkboard). And that makes sense, as the story tells of a revived form of paganism, invented to encourage locals to raise apples.

The Wicker Man himself is of supposedly Druidic origin. While there was no evidence that this was ever used in Ireland (or at all, for that matter), there is now a Wicker Man craft and gift store in Belfast. Presumably, if you wanted to recreate the last scene in the film, you could do so with supplies from this store, but we recommend simply watching the movie, rather than reenacting it.

Irish-American Christmas: Little Christmas

When do Christmas decorations come down? Who knows? The Irish know.

Christmas has come and gone, and all that is left are the ornaments, which some whisk away to the basement like a guest who might stay too long if not thrown bodily out the door as soon as possible. Others keep the ornaments up a long time, too long, either out of laziness or some post-Christmas malaise with its own sad logic: As long as the decorations are still up, Christmas isn’t completely gone, is it? One man is Wisconsin has left his up for 40 years, according to the Duluth Daily News. My biological mother was raised in Duluth, and her only requirement when I was given up for adoption is that I not be adopted by somebody in Duluth, and I think I understand why. Because, man, 40 years? That’s sad.

We have no American consensus about when to take down the decorations. We just get around to it when we get around to it, and anyone who takes theirs down before we do seems like something of a spoilsport while anyone who waits longer than we do seems like a bit of a slob. Our problem is that we don’t have a Little Christmas.

For those of you who don’t know, Little Christmas (or Nollaig Bheag) is the Irish name for the Feast of the Epiphany, which is barely celebrated in the United States, although it is the official start of Carnival season in New Orleans. The date is January 6, and that’s when decorations come down. There are some other traditions associated with the holiday: In Cork and Kerry, it’s called Nollaig na mBan, or Women’s Christmas, and men take responsibility for the household chores, which seems like the set-up for a 1950s sitcom episode. Women, in the meanwhile, go out to parties with their female friends and relatives, which sounds like the the first scene in a 1990s romantic comedy. There is also set dancing.

This is, of course, an Irish-American blog, and so I don’t typically recommend something just because Irish people do it, but try to demonstrate that someone, somewhere, once did in in America too, and I can therefore declare it an Irish-American custom. My fellow blogger Irish-American Mom seems to have made an attempt to make sure the holiday is practiced in her house (although she admits that the holiday’s visibility has dwindled even in Ireland), which is good enough for me. But even before now, the holiday seems to have had some following in America. The Irish World from December 28, 1901 declared it one of the customs that had traveled “wheresoever in the four corners of the globe men of the Irish race are to be found.” Irish World was published in New York, and regularly reminded their readers of the Irish custom of Little Christmas, so the holiday either had adherents in the US or Irish World was determined it would.

It had caught on by 1952, which is the first reference I find to the holiday being actually celebrated by Irish-Americans, rather then referred to by them. According to the Boston American, the Middlesex County Irish-American Associates made an annual tradition of Little Christmas.In 1958, the event was described as follows: “The party is to be dedicated to the ladies of the organization and will feature songs by Pat Buckley, songs and dances by the Splaine Sisters, jigs, reels and the hornpipe by the Madenettes, and refresnments.”

Somehow, in the intervening years, it has picked up a larger following in the US, or, at least, one that is easier to identify online. I’ll be celebrating it this year, of course, but so will Chicago’s Gaelic Park, which is offering a Women’s Little Christmas ladies night out this coming year. The Gaelic League of Detroit has a wine tasting planned for this Little Christmas, which seems to be a tradition they just made up, but one which I cannot help but salute.

I’d like to suggest that we even have a song for the holiday already: “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” which probably picked its title out of ignorance of the Irish holiday, but nonetheless makes no reference to December 25, and, further, was introduced by an Irish-American woman, which makes it ideal for Little Christmas: The song debuted in “Meet Me in St. Louis” and was sung by Judy Garland. And, hey! Since we’re moving it away from Christmas and to Little Christmas, let’s sing the song’s original, depressing lyrics, edited out of the film and further edited when Sinatra sang his iconic version, but appropriate for the melancholy that accompanies removing Christmas decorations:

Have yourself a merry little Christmas
It may be your last
Next year we may all be living in the past
Have yourself a merry little Christmas
Pop that champagne cork
Next year we may all be living in New York
No good times like the olden days
Happy golden days of yore
Faithful friends who were dear to us
Will be near to us no more
But at least we all will be together
If the Lord allows
From now on, we’ll have to muddle through somehow
So have yourself a merry little Christmas now

Irish-American Christmas Movies: Going My Way (1944)

Barry Fitzgerald and Bing Crosby in “Going My Way”: Two craftsmen in search of the perfect pop moment.

I will begin this series of essays about Irish-American Christmas films with “Going My Way,” even though it isn’t really a Christmas movie, strictly speaking. Christmas is mentioned once, in passing, because one of the main characters will be gone by then, and the film climaxes on Christmas eve, but barely acknowledges the fact. But “Going My Way” had a sequel, “The Bells of St. Mary’s,” which has a Nativity play in it, and so we might as well start with the first film and not the sequel.

“Going My Way” is by far the more Irish of the two films anyway. Both starred Bing Crosby as a young Catholic priest named Father Charles “Chuck” O’Malley, and that’s going to bring a certain ethnic cache to any project. Crosby remains of of this country’s most famous Irish-Americans, even though, like me, Crosby was half-English. But “Going My Way” also features Dublin-born actor Barry Fitzgerald as a New York parish pastor, and, when you cast Fitzgerald, you might as well just cover the set in clover and fill it with fishermen in Aran Island sweaters singing “Danny Boy.”

In some ways, Fitzgerald’s screen presence, here and elsewhere, represented the worst excesses of the American idea of Ireland. He was small, irascible, often drunk, and looked very much like a leprechaun. He was given to fanciful speech and rascally ways. He was short-tempered and Catholic in a manner that felt superstitious, instead of reasoned. But Fitzgerald was always the right choice to play these sorts of roles, because, even if Americans wanted him to be a kitschy, twee vision of Irishness, Fitzgerald was to canny for easy characterizations.

He came to America with quite a pedigree, after all. He wasn’t just an actor at Dublin’s storied Abbey Theater, he was playwright Sean O’Casey’s roommate, and Fitzgerald originated roles in “Juno and the Paycock” and “The Lough and the Stars.” You can see Fitzgerald in the film adaptations of both (the first by Alfred Hitchcock, and one of the only films in which Hitchcock addressed his own Irish heritage), and you can see the template for Fitzgerald’s American performances in both. His loquacious, temperamental inebriate in “Plough,” named Fluther Good, in particular seems to be the role that created the iconic Fitzgerald role, and I don’t know how any role could be more authentically Irish. After all, the play addresses the Easter Rising and caused a theater riot, which is always a sign that an Irish play is going to be important.

In this film, Fitzgerald plays an older priest, and so his mannerisms are foxier. He excels at tiny comic details and reaction shots, and “Going My Way” affords him both in abundance. He leads a fictional New York church that is drowning in debt. He doesn’t know it, but Bing Crosby has been sent to take charge. Crosby is endlessly deferential to Fitzgerald, in part looking to spare the man’s feelings and in part because he genuinely respects the man. This is not reciprocated: Fitzgerald spends a good portion of the movie looking askance at the younger priest, oftentimes literally peering around door frames or from behind staircases to see what he’s up to, and all the while managing to make a quiet but constant irritability into something adorable.

You don’t get the sense that Crosby is a rainmaker. He’s not a radical visionary, but instead a competent administrator with a genuine concern for his parishioners. He makes daily visits to the infirm and organizes a youth choir in attempt to save the racially mixed kids in his neighborhood from hooliganism. They take a shine to him pretty quickly — only one kids rebels, and he is quite literally slapped out of it by another kid.

You can see why the kids like him. Crosby plays his role with a easy sense of good-natured compassion, producing a tremendously warm performance from a man who biographers paint as often very cold. Crosby and Fitzgerald have an entertaining anti-chemistry at the start of the film — deferential though he may be, there is something about Crosby that says he’s just going to do things his way and take any criticism with an unconcerned smile. It doesn’t take long for Fitzgerald to cotton to the fact that there has been an unmentioned coup, and he can’t stand it. So Fitzgerald fumes quietly, and Crosby shrugs off the fact and finds it funny, and it’s great fun watching the two men not get along.

Eventually they do bond, of course, over the song “Too Ra Loo Ra Loo Ral,” of course. The film insists on treating this song as being authentically Irish, despite the fact that it is a Tin Pan Alley composition and supersaturated with the sort of mossy nostalgia endemic to Irish-Americans. It’s impossible to imagine it performed by a Sean-nós singer in a Galway beard, bleating it our like a billy goat while throwing in goatlike vocal ornamentation, although I’d kill to see someone try it. The scene is deeply affecting, but since it means that Crosby and Fitzgerald are going to get along now, it’s also a little disappointing: The two were better adversaries than they are friends. But the moment when they transition from one to the other is magnificent, and I will address that in a moment.

There is a lot more to the film, most of it inconsequential. Crosby has an ex who is an opera singer, and it turns out he was an aspiring songwriter. He even tries to sell a song, the film’s title song, but song publishers rightly reject it. “Going My Way” is old-fashioned and sentimental, its opening lines “This road leads to rainbowville,” and as soon as the publisher’s hear it, you can see them mentally putting on their overcoats and heading toward the door. The music of the era, we’re told, is “Voffala,” which apparently means nonsensical and silly. The “Hut-Sut Song” is given as an example, disparagingly, irritatingly, because I love that song. But Crosby has his own Voffala song, “Swinging on a Star,” and as soon as the publishers hear it, they know it to be a hit. They’re right, too — the song won an Academy Award and has had endless covers recorded, whereas I can’t remember the last time a crooner pointed the way to Rainbowville.

There’s also a subplot about an 18-year-old runaway who wants to be a singer but ends up with everyone thinking she’s a tramp, when she isn’t, not really. Crosby gives her some singing lessons, which I am not sure would be welcome from an actual priest, but Crosby was one of the most influential voices of the 20th century and so when he has some advice to offer, you take it, even if he’s in priestly drag.

 The film gives Crosby a lot of opportunities to sing, and it should. There’s a musical phrase, the pocket, that describes the areas right around the beat, and performers will sometimes hit their note just before the beat, to push the song, or after, to make it laconic. Crosby lived in the pocket, and he offers a performance of “Ave Maria” in this film that is a masterclass in using tempo to sing expressively. 

Without Crosby, a song like “Too Ra Loo Ra Loo Ral,” might be a bit much. It’s a saccharine song, overloaded with cheap sentimentality and with a melody that verges on preciousness, but Crosby really knows how to sell his material. In the scene, he is, in fact, serenading a very old and heartbroken man who has not seen his home or family for 45 years, and Crosby gives it the gravity it deserves.

It’s a perfect pop moment, made perfect by the extraordinary skill of the two men in the scene, Crosby and Fitzgerald, and the unembarrassed pleasure they take in such a slight confection. Sometimes the slightest things, such as oversweet pop songs, can be the most meaningful, and they can be adored without embarrassment.

Crosby and Fitzgerald both won Academy Awards for their performances, by the way. Hollywood loves a great pop moment as much as I do.

Irish-American Christmas: Irish-American Christmas Tree: Alcohol Ornaments

The Christmas tree isn’t an Irish tradition — or, at least, it wasn’t originally, but they have grown to be popular there. The modern Christmas tree originated in Germany sometime in its early modern history, and even its pre-Christian origins are likely German. But the custom made it to great Britain some two hundred years ago, and Queen Victoria really took to the tradition, which led to the tree being widely adopted in Great Britain and Ireland.

We’ve had Christmas trees in America since at least the late 1700s, when Hessians are supposed to have decorated a tree in Windsor Locks, Connecticut. And since one of the great pleasures of the Christmas tree is that it can be decorated in a highly individualistic or idiosyncratic manner, it wasn’t long before Irish-Americans began adding their own decorations. In fact, in the great Irish tradition of claiming things, the Trenton Evening Times in December of 1910 insisted the tree itself was Irish in origin. The article claims that the Irish Saint Columbanus, in around the year 590, despaired of ever getting German pagans to give up worshipping fir trees, and hit on the idea of decorating them and affixing Christian meaning to them. As far as I can tell, there is no real evidence of this, but you will still hear this story sometimes, and what the heck — it’s as credible as any other origin story for the tree.

Ever since, it has been fairly easy to five your Christmas tree an Irish makeover. Unsurprisingly, a lot of these have to do with alcohol. They’re tacky, yes, but they also serve as a kitschy delight, and Christmas is, if anything, a celebration of kitsch. Here are a few of the better ones:

1. Jameson Ornament, $10.

It’s the most popular Irish whiskey in America, and a really fine drink. Give it a place of honor.

2. Jameson Whiskey Barrel ornament, $9.95.

For big celebrations, when a single bottle may not be enough.

3. Pine cone wreath buttoned with a Guinness bottle cap, $5.40.

Nothing says Christmas like a drunken craft project.

4. Beer mug with shamrocks, $12.99.

Full and frosty.

5. Clancy’s Pub ornament, $35.

Believe it or not, the are several different Irish pubs you can hang from your tree, which leads to me to hope that at night, when the lights are lowered, the other ornaments pluck themselves from their branches and converge together in the pub to drink, toast each other, and commiserate about the terrible taste of whoever owns the tree they are in.

Irish-American Christmas: Irish Christmas Cards

There used to be a store in New York, on 155 West 23rd Street, called the Irish Store, and they were responsible for a brief, but lovely, Irish-American Christmas practice.  The Gaelic American wrote about it in 1906, when the practice was in its second year: Irish-Americans would buy Christmas cards, often in Irish, from the store, and then send them to relatives or friends in Ireland. The publication wrote:

It was strong evidence that the ties were not severed, and the receipt of a little messenger of affection brought up memories of childhood which had almost become effaced through long neglect of correspondence.

The cards came from two companies: Guy and Co., from County Cork, and L. McKay from Belfast. The column described them:

The cards of Messrs. Guy & Co, are printed in Irish with the English translation under the Gaelic text. They are of elaborate Celtic design and some of them have sprays of real shamrock pressed on the leaves. There are also Gaelic mottoes for Christmas decoration from this same publisher. Miss McKay’s cardsare exquisite hand-colored little publications, with the daintiest sprays of shamrock leaves and mosses pressed to form a framework around some appropriate verse. They are painted and arranged by a number of ladies in Belfast who are dependent on this work for their subsistence, most of them having been people of means in their earlier years.

I think this is a tradition that is well worth reviving. You may already have friends or family in Ireland to send cards to; failing that, just type “Irish pen pal” into Google and there are a dozen or so services that will put you in touch with someone from Ireland looking to make friends abroad. Alternately, you might just pick someone from Ireland you’re especially fond of and send them a card — I have a feeling that Jedward will be getting less cards this year than previous years, so you might make their holiday a little brighter. I might send a card to The Rubberbandits, although I am bit afraid of what I might get back in exchange.

As to the card itself — where, there are a lot to choose from. Here are a few I specially like:

Quilling In the Name Of offers this simple Irish language Christmas card, $5.11.

There are a variety of reproductions of vintage Irish Christmas cards on Zazzel.

This is formerly a Christmas card, now a giclée print that is fairly reasonable for a reproduction art piece if a little spendy for a card, but I wanted to include it to give a sense of the kitschy sort of Oirish cards that used to be popular. This one is from, $49.99.

If you’re got some patience, it’s also possible to find vintage Irish Christmas cards on online auction sites, many of which are still exquisite. Here are a few sample cards:

Irish-American Thanksgiving: Irish Stockings

Not this kind of stocking.

We don’t know what the Mayflower pilgrims brought with them to America, which makes things frustrating when you’re trying to suggest some ways to make the holiday a little more Irish. The Puritans weren’t Irish, of course — they were English Protestants. But the Mayflower itself had made runs to Ireland, and Irish goods were common among ship’s provisions, and so we’re left with the question: What, if anything, did the pilgrims bring with them from Ireland.

It turns out “Irish stockings” is a likely answer. Because although we have no list from the Puritans themselves, we do have a list of suggested provisions offered by one of their investors. And, if the Puritans followed this list, here is how they dressed:

Monmouth cap, falling bands, shirts, waistcoat, suit of canvas, suit of cloth, Irish stockings, 4 pairs of shoes, garters.  Slippers, plain shoes, little shoes, French soles.

 It’s not precisely how we imagine them: The Monmouth cap isn’t at all like the blocked felt hats the Puritans are usually shown wearing, but was instead a high knit wool cap with a loop at the back. We often picture them with ruffled white neck bands that stick out like an alarmed doily, but the falling bands draped around the neck like a bib. And what the hell are Irish stockings?

According to the Plymouth Archeological Rediscovery Project, they were cloth stockings with stirrups that fitted under the feet. These were then tied with ribbon garters, just below the knee. These were, it seems, much favored in the new world, because they were warm and long-lasting in comparison to knit stockings.

I don’t really know what to say about this. They sound a bit like the sort of stirrup socks that baseball players used to wear, and I suppose you could wear them on Thanksgiving, if you wanted, although we don’t really have a tradition of dressing in costumes for Thanksgiving.

But, still, if anybody ever wonders if the Irish contributed to Thanksgiving, we now know the answer: possibly. The Irish possibly kept the pilgrims’ legs dry and warm.

Irish-American Thanksgiving: Ragamuffin Day

Ragamuffin Day: A strange, self-organized, largely poor immigrant New York Thanksgiving tradition, now largely forgotten, that had children dress as tramps and beg money.

In the great tradition of just claiming something for the Irish, Irish Central offered an article last year called “When Halloween Fell on Thanksgiving for Irish NYers.” The article refers back to an almost forgotten tradition, called Ragamuffin Day, and, yes, it was something that Irish children in New York did. This is documented by the book “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” Betty Smith’s 1943 novel about a New York Irish family. She wrote:

Most children brought up in Brooklyn before the first World War remember Thanksgiving Day there with a peculiar tenderness. It was the day children went around ‘ragamuffin’ or ‘slamming gates,’ wearing costumes topped off by a penny mask. …The street was jammed with masked and costumed children making a deafening din with their penny tin horns. Some kids were too poor to buy a penny mask. They had blackened their faces with burnt cork. Other children with more prosperous parents had store costumes: sleazy Indian suits, cowboys suits and cheesecloth Dutch maiden dresses….Some storekeepers locked their doors against them but most of them had something for the children…[We] went home to a good Thanksgiving dinner of pot roast and home-made noodles and spent the afternoon listening to papa reminisce how he had gone around Thanksgiving Day as a boy.

It worth noting that Smith doesn’t identify the children as being specifically Irish-American, and they weren’t. James M. Farrar wrote of the event in 1910 in his book “Little Talk to Little People,” describing it in this way:

Ragamuffin Day is all that is left of an old New York custom. Men and women richly drest would parade on Thanksgiving as our Philadelphia friends did on New Year’s.

The children, quick to see a chance for fun, began to imitate grown-ups. Dressing in old clothes many sizes too large, painting their faces or putting on a mask, the children went out to mimic the seniors. The grown ups have given up their custom, but the children keep up the imitation. One part of the game is to ask the passers by for pennies. Frequently the ragamuffins ring the door-bell and ask for money and for something to eat. It sometimes happens that a well-to-do and generous man will meet on the street and give money to his own child, thinking he is helping some poor boy or girl.

But if Irish Central’s telling of the holiday is too Irish, Farrar’s is too general. Ragamuffin Day was largely popular in Brooklyn, which was then a largely immigrant neighborhood, and borrowed practices that were viewed as Irish. A commentor on The Ancestral Archelogist website recalls this:

We lived on 162nd Street in the Bronx in a 10 story building and we would dress up and go into the alleys and beg. People would throw pennies out of their windows. Some would wrap the pennies in bits of newspaper so they didn’t bounce all over the place. We also, filled socks with flour and tried to hit each other.

Another commenter on another site referenced this as well, and recalled that Irish women used to do the same:

I do remember the old ladies who used to pass through the alleys and would sing an Irish ditty or two for their suppers. Tenants of the building would shower them with change, more as a vote of solidarity or a gesture of sympathy and generousity, than as a token of their appreciation. It always reminded our families of the depression and hard times.

Another mentions that children were mimicking these Irish beggars, and she herself had learned the lyrics to the Irish song “A Mother’s Love is a Blessing,” in order to sing it in the alleys as part of Ragamuffin Day. Similarly, in letter to the New York Times, Jim Tierney of Queens recalls begging at the bars. ” We played Irish traditional music on the fiddle and flute and sang and danced to it,” he wrote. “We sometimes earned $45 for the day. The best money was made playing ‘The Stack of Barley’ and singing ‘A Nation Once Again.’”

It’s likely that these were traditions in Irish communities, and other immigrant communities had their own; nonetheless, the day was explicitly seen as an immigrant contribution to Thanksgiving, and, more than that, was associated with the poor. Author William Dean Howells wrote the following in 1907’s “Through the Eye of the Needle”:

The poor recognize the day largely as a sort of carnival. They go about in masquerade on the eastern avenues, and the children of the foreign races who populate that quarter penetrate the better streets, blowing horns and begging of the passers. They have probably no more sense of its difference from the old carnival of Catholic Europe than from the still older Saturnalia of pagan times .

There was a cry associated with the parade, like there is for Mardi Gras, where children run alongside the parade floats and cry out “Throw me something, mister!” or Halloween’s cry of “Trick or treat!” For Ragamuffin Day, it was “Anything for Thanksgiving,” generally rendered with a New York accent.

While there were (and still are, in one case) community organized Ragamuffin Day events, a lot of this seemed self-organized by children, and, like Halloween, was associated with considerable mischief. Al Smith, the Irish mayor of New York, remembered children organizing themselves into groups called “rangers.” Sometimes these groups would fight each other — Ephemeral New York includes a story of an Italian ragamuffin who pulled a gun on other kids and opened fire, wounding two.

And while there seems to have been a period where the children were costumed by their parents, there is a longer and continuous history of the children borrowing their parent’s clothes and then dressing like, and behaving like, street beggars or tramps, a practice that embarrassed adults, as demonstrated by a 1936 New York Time article called “Ragamuffins Frowned Upon,” stating that:

Despite the endeavors of social agencies to discourage begging by children, it is likely that the customary Thanksgiving ragamuffins, wearing discarded apparel of their elders, with masks and painted faces, will ask passers-by, ‘anything for Thanksgiving?'”

The slogan for a 1940 Thanksgiving parade, organized by the Madison Square Boys Club and featuring 400 children, made that disapproval even more explicit. Their slogan was “American Boys Do Not Beg.”

The tradition was eventually supplanted by the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade, which, in its early years, included the sort of costumed children that Ragamuffin Day had introduced. But I think the tradition is worth revisiting, for two reasons: Firstly, it is one of the rare examples of a Thanksgiving custom that explicitly references the experience of immigrants, and, secondly, also dramatizes the poverty experienced by immigrant communities.

More than that, children are given so little to do on Thanksgiving. Dress them in oversized clothes, have them sing Irish song, and throw pennies at them. It’s better than pushing them down into a basement room to do God-knows-what, which was the Thanksgiving tradition in my house. Trust me, we were up to no good.

Irish-American Thanksgiving: The Pilgrim Fathers by John Boyle O’Reilly

John Boyle O’Reilly, a poet who liked pilgrims.

We don’t have much of a tradition of Thanksgiving readings, but I’d like to suggest that we add one, at least for an Irish-American Thanksgiving. It’s a poem called The Pilgrim Fathers, and it had undeniable Thanksgiving bona fides. The poem was composed for the 1889 dedication of the National Monument to the Forefathers in Plymouth and was read aloud at the ceremony by its author.

The author had an Irish enough name: John Boyle O’Reilly, but, at first blush, his poem seems a formal, bombastic ode to the pilgrim history, and not have an Irish content at all. That is, until you find out more about O’Reilly.

He was born in 1844 in County Meath to a patriotic family who supported Irish nationalism, and O’Reilly eventually joined the Fenian secret society. When the group attracted the attention of the British authorities, O’Reilly was arrested and initially sentenced to death, but the authorizes commuted his sentence and sentenced to 20 years imprisonment, eventually leading him to the colony in Western Australia. O’Reilly escaped prison there and worked his way to America, first coming to Philadelphia and later settling in Boston.

O’Reilly became a newspaperman here, writing for the Catholic publication The Pilot, where he wrote extensively about Irish subjects. He also developed a national reputation as a poet: He was repotedly John F. Kennedy’s favorite poet, and Kennedy’s speeches are littered with phrases from O’Reilly’s poems.

Knowing this, O’Reilly’s Thanksgiving poem winds up having unavoidable Irish subtext, and, indeed, autobiographical subtext. He writes of people trying to free themselves from the oppressions of an English king, some among them imprisoned and driven from their native lands, with England being reduced to “The payers and the takers of the rent” — a line of special significance for the Irish, who had been related to being tenants for English landlords on their own native soil.

The poem comes from a long tradition of representing the pilgrims as stand-ins for the immigrant experience, fleeing oppression at home for opportunity in America, but in O’Reilly’s telling, the pilgrims become a metaphor for the Irish experience, hinted at in small details, such as his insistence on calling English despots “Normans,” explicitly linking them to Viking invaders who had previously occupied Ireland, an in its relentless theme of democratic self-determination.


ONE righteous word for Law—the common will;
One living truth of Faith—God regnant still;
One primal test of Freedom—all combined;
One sacred Revolution—change of mind;
One trust unfailing for the night and need—
The tyrant-flower shall cast the freedom-seed.

So held they firm, the Fathers aye to be,
From Home to Holland, Holland to the sea—
Pilgrims for manhood, in their little ship,
Hope in each heart and prayer on every lip.
They could not live by king-made codes and creeds;
They chose the path where every footstep bleeds.
Protesting, not rebelling; scorned and banned;
Through pains and prisons harried from the land;
Through double exile,—till at last they stand
Apart from all,—unique, unworldly, true,
Selected grain to sow the earth anew;
A winnowed part—a saving remnant they;
Dreamers who work—adventurers who pray!
What vision led them? Can we test their prayers?
Who knows they saw no empire in the West?
The later Puritans sought land and gold,
And all the treasures that the Spaniard told;
What line divides the Pilgrims from the rest?

We know them by the exile that was theirs;
Their justice, faith, and fortitude attest;
And those long years in Holland, when their band
Sought humble living in a stranger’s land.
They saw their England covered with a weed
Of flaunting lordship both in court and creed.
With helpless hands they watched the error grow,
Pride on the top and impotence below;
Indulgent nobles, privileged and strong,
A haughty crew to whom all rights belong;
The bishops arrogant, the courts impure,
The rich conspirators against the poor;
The peasant scorned, the artisan despised;
The all-supporting workers lowest prized.
They marked those evils deepen year by year:
The pensions grow, the freeholds disappear,
Till England meant but monarch, prelate, peer.
At last, the Conquest! Now they know the word:
The Saxon tenant and the Norman lord!
No longer Merrie England: now it meant
The payers and the takers of the rent;
And rent exacted not from lands alone—
All rights and hopes must centre in the throne:
Law-tithes for prayer—their souls were not their own!

Then o’er the brim the bitter waters welled;
The mind protested and the soul rebelled.
And yet, how deep the bowl, how slight the flow!
A few brave exiles from their country go;
A few strong souls whose rich affections cling,
Though cursed by clerics, hunted by the king.
Their last sad vision on the Grimsby strand
Their wives and children kneeling on the sand.

Then twelve slow years in Holland—changing years—
Strange ways of life—strange voices in their ears;
The growing children learning foreign speech;
And growing, too, within the heart of each
A thought of further exile—of a home
In some far land—a home for life and death
By their hands built, in equity and faith.

And then the preparation—the heart-beat
Of wayfarers who may not rest their feet;
Their Pastor’s blessing—the farewells of some
‘Who stayed in Leyden. Then the sea’s wide blue!—
‘They sailed,’ writ one,’ and as they sailed they knew
That they were Pilgrims!’

On the wintry main
God flings their lives as farmers scatter grain.
His breath propels the winged seed afloat;
His tempests swerve to spare the fragile boat;
Before His prompting terrors disappear;
He points the way while patient seamen steer;
Till port is reached, nor North, nor South, but HERE!

Here, where the shore was rugged as the waves,
‘Where frozen nature dumb and leafless lay,
And no rich meadows bade the Pilgrims stay,
‘Was spread the symbol of the life that saves:
To conquer first the outer things; to make
Their own advantage, unallied, unbound;
Their blood the mortar, building from the ground;
Their cares the statutes, making all anew;
To learn to trust the many, not the few;
To bend the mind to discipline; to break
The bonds of old convention, and forget
The claims and barriers of class; to face
A desert land, a strange and hostile race,
And conquer both to friendship by the debt
That Nature pays to justice, love, and toil.

Here, on this rock, and on this sterile soil,
Began the kingdom not of kings, but men:
Began the making of the world again.
Here centuries sank, and from the hither brink
A new world reached and raised an old-world link,
When English hands, by wider vision taught,
Threw down the feudal bars the Normans brought,
And here revived, in spite of sword and stake,
Their ancient freedom of the Wapentake!
Here struck the seed—the Pilgrims’ roofless town,
Where equal rights and equal bonds were set,
Where all the people equal-franchised met;
Where doom was writ of privilege and crown;
Where human breath blew all the idols down;
Where crests were nought, where vulture flags were furled,
And common men began to own the world!

All praise to others of the vanguard then!
To Spain, to France; to Baltimore and Penn;
To Jesuit, Quaker,—Puritan and Priest;
Their toil be crowned—their honors be increased!
We slight no true devotion, steal no fame
From other shrines to gild the Pilgrims’ name.
As time selects, we judge their treasures heaped;
Their deep foundations laid; their harvests reaped;
Their primal mode of liberty; their rules
Of civil right; their churches, courts, and schools;
Their freedom’s very secret here laid down,—
The spring of government is the little town!
They knew that streams must follow to a spring;
And no stream flows from township to a king.
Give praise to others, early-come or late,
For love and labor on our ship of state;
But this must stand, above all fame and zeal:
The Pilgrim Fathers laid the ribs and keel.
On their strong lines we base our social health,—
The man—the home—the town—the commonwealth!

Unconscious builders? Yea: the conscious fail!
Design is impotent if Nature frown.
No deathless pile has grown from intellect.
Immortal things have God for architect,
And men are but the granite He lays down.
Unconscious? Yea! They thought it might avail
To build a gloomy creed about their lives,
To shut out all dissent; but naught survives
Of their poor structure; and we know to-day
Their mission was less pastoral than lay—
More Nation-seed than Gospel-seed were they!

The Faith was theirs: the time had other needs.
The salt they bore must sweeten worldly deeds.
There was a meaning in the very wind
That blew them here so few, so poor, so strong,
To grapple concrete work, not abstract wrong.
Their saintly Robinson was left behind
To teach by gentle memory; to shame
The bigot spirit and the word of flame;
To write dear mercy in the Pilgrims’ law;
To lead to that wide faith his soul foresaw,—
That no rejected race in darkness delves;
There are no Gentiles, but they make themselves;
That men are one of blood and one of spirit;
That one is as the whole, and all inherit!

On all the story of a life or race,
The blessing of a good man leaves its trace.
Their Pastor’s word at Leyden here sufficed:
‘But follow me as I have followed Christ!’
And, ‘I believe there is more truth to come!’
O gentle soul, what future age shall sum
The sweet incentive of thy tender word!
Thy sigh to hear of conquest by the sword:
‘How happy to convert, and not to slay! ‘
When valiant Standish killed the chief at bay.
To such as thee the Fathers owe their fame;
The Nation owes a temple to thy name.
Thy teaching made the Pilgrims kindly, free,—
All that the later Puritans should be.
Thy pious instinct marks their destiny.
Thy love won more than force or arts adroit—
It writ and kept the deed with Massasoit;
It earned the welcome Samoset expressed;
It lived again in Eliot’s loving breast;
It filled the Compact which the Pilgrims signed—
Immortal scroll! the first where men combined
From one deep lake of common blood to draw
All rulers, rights, and potencies of law.

When waves of ages have their motive spent
Thy sermon preaches in this Monument,
Where Virtue, Courage, Law, and Learning sit;
Calm Faith above them, grasping Holy Writ;
White hand upraised o’er beauteous, trusting eyes,
And pleading finger pointing to the skies!

The past is theirs—the future ours; and we
Must learn and teach. Oh, may our record be
Like theirs, a glory, symbolled in a stone,
To speak as this speaks, of our labors done.
They had no model; but they left us one.

Severe they were; but let him cast the stone
Who Christ’s dear love dare measure with his own.
Their strict professions were not cant nor pride.
Who calls them narrow, let his soul be wide!
Austere, exclusive—ay, but with their faults,
Their golden probity mankind exalts,
They never lied in practice, peace, or strife;
They were no hypocrites; their faith was clear;
They feared too much some sins men ought to fear:
The lordly arrogance and avarice,
And vain frivolity’s besotting vice;
The stern enthusiasm of their life
Impelled too far, and weighed poor nature down;
They missed God’s smile, perhaps, to watch His frown.
But he who digs for faults shall resurrect
Their manly virtues born of self-respect.
How sum their merits? They were true and brave;
They broke no compact and they owned no slave;
They had no servile order, no- dumb throat;
They trusted first the universal vote;
The first were they to practice and. instill
The rule of law and not the rule of will;
They lived one noble test: who would be freed
Must give up all to follow duty’s lead.
They made no revolution based on blows,
But taught one truth that all the planet knows,
That all men think of, looking on a throne—
The people may be trusted with their own!

In every land wherever might holds sway
The Pilgrims’ leaven is at work to-day.
The Mayflower’s cabin was the chosen womb
Of light predestined for the nations’ gloom.
God grant that those who tend the sacred flame
May worthy prove of their Forefathers’ name.
More light has come,—more dangers, too, perplex:
New prides, new greeds, our high condition vex.
The Fathers fled from feudal lords,, and made
A freehold state; may we not retrograde
To lucre-lords and hierarchs of trade.
May we, as they did, teach in court and school,
There must be classes, but no class shall rule:
The sea is sweet, and rots not like the pool.
Though vast the token of our future glory,
Though tongue of man hath told not such a story,—
Surpassing Plato’s dream, More’s phantasy,—still we
Have no new principles to keep us free.
As Nature works with changeless grain on grain,
The truths the Fathers taught we need again.
Depart from this, though we may crowd our shelves,
With codes and precepts for each lapse and flaw,
And patch our moral leaks with statute law,
We cannot be protected from ourselves!
Still must we keep in every stroke and vote
The law of conscience that the Pilgrims wrote;
Our seal their secret: LIBERTY CAN BE;
The death of nations in their work began;
They sowed the seed of federated Man.
Dead nations were but robber-holds; and we
The first battalion of Humanity!
All living nations, while our eagles shine,
One after one, shall swing into our line;
Our freeborn heritage shall be the guide
And bloodless order of their regicide;
The sea shall join, not limit; mountains stand
Dividing farm from farm, not land from land.

O People’s Voice! when farthest thrones shall hear;
When teachers own; when thoughtful rabbis know;
When artist minds in world-wide symbol show;
When serfs and soldiers their mute faces raise;
When priests on grand cathedral altars praise;
When pride and arrogance shall disappear,
The Pilgrims’ Vision is accomplished here!

Irish-American Thanksgiving: Eel

Eel at G. Kelly: A Thanksgiving inspiration?

“I’m well versed in the typical Irish/ Irish American Thanksgiving,” an Irish Central author wrote, “which I’d imagine is nearly no different from the typical American Thanksgiving.” The author named only one uniquely Irish element to their holiday celebration: Grace said in Irish.

And so it is. Thanksgiving isn’t historically a time for Americans to celebrate their differences, but their sameness — it’s more unum than e pluribus, if you will. There is a phrase, Irish Thanksgiving, that inspired the Irish Central writer quoted above, but it is a slang phrase for having a meal at Boston Market alone and then drinking a six-pack of Guinness, and that’s not the sort of thing we’re discussing here at all.

You do find occasional mentions of Thanksgiving in Irish-American households, such as the party at the McGowan’s in Boston in 1833, mentioned in “Irish Boston: A Lively Look at Boston’s Colorful Irish Past” by Michael Quinlin. The McGowan’s home doubled as a speakeasy, or, as Quinlin tells us, a shabeen, and the night featured fiddling and dancing and refreshments in the bar. A fight afterward led to a death and then an anti-Irish riot, and perhaps these are traditions we would do well not to revisit.

Frank McCourt mentions Thanksgiving, but just in passing, in “Angela’s Ashes”; it’s spent in a speakeasy. “Wildflower Girl,” by Marita Conlon-McKenna, ends with a Thanksgiving celebration. “I thought Thanksgiving because it’s celebrating the immigrant,” the author explained, but her Thanksgiving is the traditional American feast, and her characters, escapees of the famine, experience it as a sort of welcoming to America. It is already an established tradition in the book, not something to be modified by new immigrants.

But all this came about during the time of the melting pot, popularized by Israel Zangwill’s 1908 play “The Melting Pot,” which told of Jewish immigrants to America who happily assimilate, one composing a symphony to a future unburdened by the divisiveness of the past. But the melting pot is only one metaphor for the American experience, and it is a flawed one in many ways. Its racial politics are atrocious, as an example. Blacks and other people of color were not allowed to assimilate, for the most part, and so it is very easy to read “assimilation” as instead being a call to abandon ethnic identities in favor of a generalized “whiteness,” which was mostly defined by privilege.

It’s a complicated discussion — far too complicated to do more than glance at here. But there are alternatives to assimilation that include and respect pluralism, and that recognize that one need not blend into an undistinguished mass to be American.

Thanksgiving is a celebration of the immigrant, yes, in the sense that it retells the story of a Pilgrim celebration after their first harvest in the New World, which was greatly aided by the Native population. Thanksgiving’s food represent something historians call the Columbian Exchange, the trade of goods and culture between the Native American population and the European immigrans following Columbus, and so we have food native to the Americas, including turkey, potatoes, squash, pumpkins, and, especially in the Midwest, Indian rice.

But this misses the other half of the Columbian Exchange — the things immigrants brought to America. They’re actually there in the Thanksgiving meal, of course, but go without the freighted meaning of the native American foods. Deviled eggs are common, and probably date back to Rome. Mincemeat pie is European. On the Mid-Atlantic Eastern seaboard, sauerkraut is apparently popular, and comes from Eastern European and Germanic cuisine. There’s our e pluribus, quietly present.

So there is a space for the contributions of the immigrant in the Thanksgiving dinner, but it’s really more of a placeholder now than a deliberate gesture. I’d like to suggest adding in foods that are at once appropriately Irish and appropriate for Thanksgiving here, and so I’ll have a few suggestions to offer. But I’m going to start with something that seems utterly mad: eel.

Believe it or not, this was probably part of the original Thanksgiving, the Plymouth Colony feast in 1621. It was one of the first foods Squanto taught the Pilgrims to catch, appropriately from the nearby Eel River, as described by Pioneer Edward Winslow in “Mourt’s Relation”:

Squanto went at noon to fish for eels. At night he came home with as many as he could well lift in one hand, which our people were glad of. They were fat and sweet. He trod them out with his feet, and so caught them with his hands without any other instrument.

  Eel has fallen out of favor in the American diet, but was a common dish in Great Britain and Ireland — there is, in fact, an island in the Thames called Eel Pie Island, which was early famous for its eel dishes and later famous for 60s rock concerts. We don’t know precisely how Squanto prepared eel, but we have a recipe from Colonial America that shows how the food was prepared in the 1670s, reported by John Josselyn:

“There is several ways of cooking them, some love them roasted, others baked, and many will have them fryed; but they please my palate best when they are boiled.” He explains further: “a common way it is to boil them in half water, half wine with the bottom of a manchet [a wheaten yeast bread], a fagot of Parsley, and a little winter savory, then they are boiled they take them out and break the bread in the broth, and put it to three or four spoonfuls of yeast, and a piece of sweet butter, this they pour to their Eals laid upon sippets [a small piece of bread or toast] and so serve it up.”

This is an especially good time to introduce eel and a specifically Irish-American Thanksgiving dish, as Lough Neagh eels from Northern Ireland recently received the vaulted protected geographical indication from the European Union. This marks a food as being particular to a region — other examples include Champagne sparking wine and Cornish pasties. Most of these eels are sold outside the country to Germany and the Netherlands to be eaten as smoked eels, but Ireland has its own eel recipes, any of which might be appropriate to add to your Thanksgiving table.

Me — well, I’m going to look to a different immigrant history, and one that especially interests me as an Irish-American who is part English. I mentioned the eel pies of London a few paragraphs ago — well, they are intimately connected with the working class history of the London, which had a large number of Irish in their ranks. In fact, the Kilburn neighborhood of London is 13 percent Irish immigrant, with a much larger number descended from Irish immigrants. One of London’s longest-lasting Eel Pie shops, G. Kelly, was founded by an Irish family, and before the pie shops there were pie-men, itinerant dealers of meat and fruit pies. If “The Rookeries of London: Past, Present, and Prospective,” published in 1872, is any indication, many of these fellows were also Irish. The author, Thomas Beames, defines his rookeries as contaning “colonies of Irish,” and listed an assortment of street businesses they engaged in, which are astonishing and I will explain parenthetically:

 [S]treet singers, dogs’ meat men [sellers of meat for dogs, not from them], crossing sweepers [who swept the path in the street in exchange for a gratuity] (in some cases a lucrative trade), pie-men, muffin-sellers, dealers in Lucifer-matches [matches lit by friction], watercresses, fruit, and sweet-meats, cabmen, dustmen, and a host of others, who prefer a desultory to regular employment, settle in this quarter.

And so my addition to Thanksgiving shall be eel pie. The book “Eel Pie Island” by Dan Van der Vat and Michele Whitby offers a traditional recipe for eel pie, which I shall reproduce here:


Skin, draw and cleanse two good-sized Thames eels; trim off the fins and cut them up in pieces about 3 inches long, and put these in a stew pan with 2 ounces of butter, some chopped mushrooms, parsley and a very little shallot, nutmeg, pepper and salt, 2 glasses of sherry, 1 of Harvey sauce and barely enough water to cover the surface of the eels. Let them on the fire, and as soon as they come to a boil, let them be removed and the pieces of eels placed carefully in a pie dish. Add 2 ounces of butter, kneaded with 2 ounces of flour, to the sauce. And having stirred it on the fire to thicken, add the juice of a lemon and pour it over the pieces of eels in the pie dish. Place some hard yolks of eggs on the top. Cover with puff-paste. Ornament the top. Egg it over, bake for about an hour, and serve either hot or cold.

Irish-American Dining: Shamrock Shake

The Shamrock Shake: A St. Paddy’s beverage with a surprising tragedy in its past.

You don’t expect to research the Shamrock Shake and discover a tragedy, and I won’t dwell on it, but neither do I think it should be stricken from the history books. There is a well-known origin to the mint-flavored mikshake served by McDonald’s during St. Patrick’s Day, and it is as follows:

The shake began as part of a charitable event intended to raise money for the first Ronald McDonald House, which happened to fall around the same time as St. Patrick’s Day in 1970. It was originally developed by a Chicago advertising firm, Rogers Merchandising, and was reportedly based on a family recipe by the firm’s executive artist, James Byrne. For years afterward, a portion of the profits from the shakes went to the charity.

But here’s the tragedy: In December of 1975, somebody broke into a penthouse in Chicago, whereupon three men were tied up and beaten with a hammer, immediately killing two of them. One of these was James Byrne. The Chicago Tribune from December 4, 1975, reported speculation that there had been a fair amount of cash in the penthouse, and that may have been what the murderer was after. Byrne was discovered by his partner at Rogers Merchandising, Charles Strasser, according to UPI, who became alarmed when Byrne did not report for work. He went to the penthouse, heard moaning, and had a building engineer let him in. “They were beaten beyond recognition,” a witness told the press. “There was blood all over the place.”

The survivor of the attack, Raymond T. Kumorek, told police they had answered the door and were met by a well-dressed man brandishing a pistol, who robbed the three men of $300 and a quantity of hashish, bound them, and then beat them savagely when he couldn’t find a larger stash of cash.

And that’s as much as I can tell you. I don’t know whether the murderer was ever apprehended. I have not been able to find any follow-up stories about the case. I can tell you that Byrne’s invention, the Shamrock Shake, is part of an ongoing charity program on the part of McDonald’s franchises that raises hundreds of thousands of dollars for the Ronald McDonald House — a total of $565,000 from Bay Area restaurants alone in 2012. So while Byrne’s life ended with tragedy, his legacy is considerable.

So let us discuss the shake itself. Byrne said it was from a family recipe, and, indeed, Shamrock Shakes have been around forever, although the earliest version I could locate was alcoholic. The 1901  National Labor Tribune from Pittsburgh, PA, offers this recipe:

“The Shamrock Shake” consists of a well-iced blending of the following ingredients. Juice of one lemon, half pound of loaf sugar, three cups of Lipton tea (strong), one quart of Lipton scotch whisky, one quart of American champagne, one whisky glass of Maraschino, one of curacao, one of green chartreuse, one pint of brandy, one pint of sherry. Garnish with sliced banana, pineapple and orange, and served in small sherry glasses. Named in honor of Sir Thomas Lipton of yacht fame.

To clarify this, Lipton was the man who created Lipton tea, and was an avid yacht racer. He was also of Irish extraction, in the sense that he was an Ulster Scot, and so had applied the name Shamrock to a series of yachts used in the America’s Cup.

Mint milkshakes also predate the Shamrock Shake, although the earliest I can find is from 1940, when Fred Meyer (“For Thrifty Buyers!”) published a mint-scented ad in the Oregonian offering “Delicious creamy Peppermint Milk Shake,” a malt made with peppermint candy flavoring.

Uncle O’Grimacey: In fairness, some Irish people actually do look like this.

But it seems like it wasn’t until McDonald’s introduced their Shamrock Shake that this was associated with St. Patrick’s Day. McDonald’s went out of their way to make it as Irish as possible, too, including introducing an uncle to their McDonaldland character Grimace, named Uncle O’Grimacey. He was green, carried a shillelagh, and dressed in a green capotain top hat and green vest decorated with shamrocks. He didn’t last very long as a mascot, but he did rather suggest that Grimace himself was Irish-American.

There is a copycat recipe for McDonald’s Shamrock Shake available online, but it is so preposterously simple that I can’t imagine it truly replicates the McDonald’s recipe. Its ingredients are as follows:

2 cups vanilla ice cream
1 1/4 cups low fat milk
1/4 teaspoon mint extract
8 drops green food coloring

Instructions? Just blend it all together.

Now, the McDonald’s recipe includes guar gum, carrageenan, and disodium phosphate, so if you make the copycat recipe, you’re going to miss all those additives — carrageenan in particular is extracted from seaweed, which feels very Irish in its own way, as Ireland is a county where people snack on seaweed in bars. In fact, if you were to make your own, I would recommend adding some Irish moss, which will thicken and bind the milkshake. Use about 1/2 oz of the stuff , soak it, and blend it until it’s creamy.

I’d also swap out the mint extract, were I to make it myself. Instead, I’d mix milk and chopped mint leaves, and sugar in a saucepan, simmer, and let them cool, and then strain the results into a bowl. I’d also probably add some whole mint leaves before I mixed it all in a blender. And for coloring?

Well, I’d probably use creme de menthe. The Shamrock Shake started off alcoholic, it should probably return to that, especially when drunk on St. Paddy’s. If you make it yourself, though, I would suggest also sending in a donation to the Ronald McDonald House, and send it in the memory of James Byrne.