Happy St. Patrick’s Day, Eastern Ohio!

The feast of St. Patrick, patron saint of Ireland, is observed around the globe as a celebration of Irish history, heritage and culture each March 17. And there certainly are plenty of area residents who have Irish heritage to celebrate today.

I know lots of local people with names such as Murphy, Kelly, Sullivan, Butler, Kennedy, Fitzgerald, McGee and McCort. Those names all have Irish roots, and many local residents whose surnames demonstrate their Italian, German or Polish heritage also have Irish ancestors.

We’ve all heard about the hundreds of thousands of Irish citizens who came to the United States during the Irish Potato Famine, or Great Hunger, that began in 1845. A fungus-like infestation ruined large portions of the staple crop in Ireland for close to a decade. That left the people of what was then a British colony without one of their major sources of food.

As a result, the Emerald Isle lost about 2 million people — half to starvation and related deaths, and the other half to emigration.

That was not the only period, though, when people from Ireland came to America. During the 1600s, some Irish were forced to leave their homeland to work as indentured servants on plantations in the Caribbean, Virginia and New England. Unlike African slaves, however, these workers labored for a set period of time and then were free to make their own way in the world.

More Irish people made their way across the Atlantic in the 1700s, traveling voluntarily during a period of British-backed, anti-Catholic upheaval.

Large portions of these immigrants were known as “Scots-Irish,” and they tended to be Presbyterians from the northern part of Ireland. They settled mainly in Appalachia and played a significant role in the Revolutionary War.

Those who came to this country in the 19th century arrived mainly in the big cities of the East Coast, including New York and Boston. They became part of the industrial labor force, working on canal and railroad projects and, later, in coal mines and factories — jobs that attracted them to our local area.

Irish immigration to America slowed in the 1900s, in part due to prejudice and discrimination. Close-knit Irish neighborhoods formed, and fear of their sheer numbers and political power caused some other Americans to lash out against them.

Once in America, people with Irish roots made a number of contributions to our culture. They provided a huge workforce, became union leaders and helped improve working conditions for all.

They also increased the presence of and spread Catholicism through a largely Protestant nation. Many notable names in American history today come from Irish families. These include the late Presidents Andrew Jackson and John F. Kennedy, automaker Henry Ford, and actor Bill Murray, among many more.

In addition, the Irish brought new culinary delights, such as corned beef and cabbage, and new styles of music, including the still-beloved ballads “Danny Boy,” “When Irish Eyes are Smiling,” and “My Wild Irish Rose.”

Although my name doesn’t show it, I have some Irish roots of my own. Genealogical research indicates that my Irish ancestors were among those early Scots-Irish who settled in Virginia and other parts of Appalachia.

Robert Poage, for example, shared my April 15 birthday, but he was born in 1730 in Derry, Ulster, Ireland. He died in 1788 at Back Creek, Virginia. He and his wife, Jean Wallace, had nine children, and they were my sixth great-grandparents on my father’s side.

But even if you don’t have any Irish roots, there is no reason you shouldn’t celebrate Irish culture today. March 17 is the anniversary of St. Patrick’s death — and even he wasn’t really Irish. Instead, he was a Roman Britain living in the 5th century who was captured and taken to Ireland as a slave, where he lived in servitude for six years.

He eventually escaped but later returned to Ireland, and he is credited with bringing Christianity to the Irish people. He I believed to have died on March 17, 461, and legends surrounding his life and work led to his special status in Ireland. A Roman Catholic Feast in his honor began four or five centuries after his death.

Then, in 1762, Irish soldiers serving in the British army in America marched through New York City on March 17, launching our nation’s tradition of St. Patrick’s Day parades. That march grew and evolved over the ensuing decades to become the largest parade in the United States with nearly 3 million people lining the 1.5-mile route each year.

Large St. Patrick’s Day parades are also held in Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago and other U.S. cities, and the Chicago River is dyed green in recognition of the occasion.

Parties are held at homes and pubs around the world to mark St. Patrick’s Day, and people drink green beer and consume traditional Irish foods.

So, if you are feeling the Irish spirit today, put on some green clothing and celebrate. Everyone, even those without Irish heritage, can appreciate all things Irish for one day each year.

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