Rotarians Hear From Maire O’Neill On St. Patrick’s Day Traditions And Celebrations

Vice President
Rotary Club of Los Alamos

“If I had a dollar for every time someone has told me they have always wanted to go to Ireland, I would be very wealthy by now,” mused Maire O’Neill, her Irish eyes smiling.  A native of Dublin, O’Neill spoke to the members of the Rotary Club of Los Alamos Tuesday, March 9 via Zoom, about traditions and celebrations of St. Patrick’s Day, March 17.

Maewyn Succat, the St. Patrick we know today, was born into nobility in the fifth century in the western part of present-day Britain, on the edge of the Roman Empire.  He was only 16 when he was “taken into slavery and sold in Ireland” by Irish raiders.  Six years later, after escaping and returning home, he had a vision instructing him to return to Ireland to spread Christianity.  Upon becoming a priest he returned to Ireland as a missionary.  His image is depicted in the Book of Kells, circa 800 A.D., illuminated manuscripts of the four gospels of the New Testament that survived the Dark Ages and are now housed at Trinity College in Dublin.

Green became the national color of Ireland after the great Irish Rebellion of 1641 during which “displaced landowners rebelled against the English crown.”  Although the rebellion failed, its leader, Eoghan Rua O’Neill, had flown “a green flag with a golden harp on it,” thereby establishing the color symbol almost 400 years ago.  O’Neill added that “although Irish people wear green on St. Patrick’s Day, in the old days (when I was growing up) the green was a little more subtle than it is nowadays and there was no pinching involved.”

As a holy day of obligation in the Roman Catholic Church, O’Neill’s family attended Mass in the morning, dressed in their Sunday best.  Children often wore “St. Patrick’s Day badges” of green, white, and gold ribbon.  “Most people wore clumps of shamrock” which were “blessed by the priest during Mass.”  O’Neill clarified that shamrock leaves are quite tiny and “shouldn’t be confused with the large clover leaves” that are often used to portray them.  Originally a “sacred plant of the ancient Druids,” the shamrock, with its three leaves, was used to teach Christianity in Ireland and is “said to have been used by St. Patrick to explain the concept of three persons in the Holy Trinity:  the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.”

Although “corned beef was available and eaten occasionally,” it was usually not served on St. Patrick’s Day.  Instead “boiled bacon with cabbage and potatoes was the common dish in Ireland.”  With St. Patrick’s Day marking the advent of spring, O’Neill’s family “often had spring lamb with a homemade sauce made from fresh chopped mint from the garden with vinegar, sugar, and water.”  Accompanying the lamb were mashed potatoes, roasted potatoes, fresh peas, scones, and loaves of soda bread.  Dessert at the O’Neill table would often be a “homemade apple or gooseberry tart served with fresh whipped cream, or my mother’s famous coffee and walnut cake.”

Although there may have been celebrations to honor St. Patrick as early as the 13th century, O’Neill noted that the first St. Patrick’s Day parade was held in New York in 1762 “when a group of homesick Irish soldiers marched a few blocks to a tavern in lower Manhattan.”  With a backdrop of springtime daffodils, primroses, and bluebells, O’Neill said, “A big treat for us kids was for all six of us to pile into the car with our parents and drive to Dublin to see the St. Patrick’s Day parade along O’Connell Street.”  Based upon the vagaries of the weather, they either arrived home sunburned or soaked.

O’Neill continued, “Everyone in my family played an instrument – we had a piano, accordions, tin whistles, harmonicas, and more, and would often switch them around from one to the other in the middle of a tune.”  Other St. Patrick’s Day activities included watching a “good rugby match” or participating in a game of Gaelic football or hurling, “which is played with a long wooden stick with a flat oval end on it and a leather ball.”

“No self-respecting Irishman would drink a green beer,” O’Neill chuckled.  “It was for tourists,” most of whom were Americans.  “You could spot them a mile away” in their tweed caps, Irish knitted sweaters, and bright green polyester pants.

With travel restrictions and Ireland in lockdown, O’Neill predicts St. Patrick’s Day will be “another quiet day” this year.  Nevertheless, she and her family will celebrate.  There will not be any green beer!

O’Neill concluded her presentation with a brief video of Michael D. Higgins, President of Ireland, wishing everyone a Happy St. Patrick’s Day.  “Lá Fhéile Pádraig sona duit!”

Maire O’Neill is the oldest of six children, one of two daughters.  Her mother was from Dublin, but her father was from Castlecomer, County Kilkenny so she enjoyed a childhood rich in traditions from both the city and “down the country” as they say in Ireland. 

O’Neill left Ireland when she was 21 and traveled around Europe for five years, working in France and Germany with a long stint at the U.S. Armed Forces Recreation Center in Garmisch-Partenkirchen in the Bavarian Alps.  She came to the United States in 1983 and lived in rural central Nevada for many years.  She worked for small town newspapers and was a stringer for the Reno Gazette Journal and Nevada Magazine.  O’Neill also worked for Department of Energy contractors at the Nevada Test Site and Yucca Mountain.  She and her husband Mike and daughter JoAnna spent four years in Washington State before moving to Los Alamos in 2005. 

In Los Alamos, O’Neill has worked for the Los Alamos Public Schools, the Los Alamos Teen Center, and in a number of other positions over the years, including a couple of years as a reporter for the Los Alamos Daily Post.  In September 2018, O’Neill founded the Los Alamos Reporter online news page which she operates “single handedly and very independently.”

The Rotary Club of Los Alamos, through its Club Foundation, is a 501(c)3 non-profit and one of over 34,000 clubs worldwide.  Rotary, which now has 1.5 million members, was founded in 1905; the local Club was chartered in 1966.  Rotary areas of focus include promoting peace; fighting disease, particularly polio; providing clean water, sanitation, and hygiene; supporting education; saving and enhancing the lives of mothers and children; growing economies; and protecting the environment.

To learn more about the Rotary Club of Los Alamos and its charitable service, please contact:  Laura Gonzales, President, 699-5880 or Skip King, Membership chair, 662-8832.