While today's calendar holiday bears the name of Ireland's patron saint, it's become more a celebration of Irish culture, history and traditions than a tribute to the man himself.
Its diminutive size notwithstanding (Ireland has about the same square mileage as Indiana), few nations can boast a bigger personality--or one with more enigmatic characteristics.
Ireland escaped conquest and rule by the Roman Empire, and the resulting "splendid isolation," as some historians characterize it, preserved the ancient Brehon law and traditions and entrenched Celtic legends and legacies.
As a people, the Irish have enjoyed and endured every station on the spectrum of sheer humanity. Early Celts were fervently religious, though pagan, but also prone to war and violence. St. Patrick was an unlikely paradox: English-born, enslaved by Irish pirates, trained for the priesthood in France, and ultimately destined to not only lead the Christian conversion of Ireland, but also establish the monasteries that made it the Land of Saints and Scholars.
In the history of Western civilization, there's no comparable national event as the Great Famine which decimated Ireland's population in the mid-19th century. A tragedy of similar devastating scale in America today would leave nearly 50 million dead, and displace almost that many abroad.
And yet for all its poverty and travesty, for all its oppression and conflict, Ireland has always been a place of story. Even when poorest in pocket or spirit, the Irish have always been rich in word and tale.
They've had a lot to say, and been able to say it well and in original ways. Notably, inimitable Irish authors have risen to earn the highest awards. Before William Butler Yeats and George Bernard Shaw won Nobel Prizes for Literature in the mid-1920s, Jonathan Swift and Oliver Goldsmith eloquently chronicled Ireland's hardships in satire and verse. Contemporaries like Oscar Wilde, and later talents such as James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, Seamus Heaney and Frank McCourt also achieved global accolades.
But some of the most memorable, quotable and applicable verbiage exported from Ireland bears no writer's name and never received formal recognition. The vast trove of Irish blessings, toasts and proverbs evoke smiling eyes and lilting laughter; they imbibe minds and steal hearts away.
They capture, in quintessential Erin Isle context, immutable truths of human nature and uniquely Irish sentiments dating back to Brehon days.
The very mention of March 17 invokes a lyrical blessing of a rising road to meet you, with wind at your back, of warm sunshine and soft rain. Other Irish invocations are that "peace and plenty be the first to lift the latch on your door," a wish that you be "poor in misfortune, rich in blessings," and a hope to "see you gray and combing your grandchildren's hair."
Irish common-sense adages abound, too: "An old broom knows the dirty corners best," "A silent mouth is sweet to hear," "You'll never plough a field by turning it over in your mind," and "The longest road out is the shortest road home."
Southern hospitality is rightly renowned, but the traditional Gaelic greeting expands it exponentially: Cead Mile Failté, which translated offers 100,000 welcomes to visitors. And while drinking is the typical Irish stereotype, St. Patrick's Day is technically a feast, and many families will sit down to a table of Irish fare today. Just this week, a research team scoured Google search data to see which St. Patrick's Day recipes ranked most popular in each state this year.
From Irish pasties in New York to Irish coffee in California, from shortbread in Florida to boxty in Vermont, from bangers and mash in North Dakota to white pudding in New Mexico, the St. Patrick's menu is scattered wide.
For Arkansans, the favorite is salmon, like it is for our neighbors in Mississippi and Louisiana as well, and that calls to mind an old Irish toast: "The health of the salmon to you: A long life, a full heart and a wet mouth."
The tradition at the Kelley household involves reuben sandwiches and a delectable pastry called a "drink-more," which is a sweet date baked in spicy breading that naturally incites thirst.
Ireland's heritage is also rich in symbolism. The shamrock, which is traditionally adorned today, represents St. Patrick's use of the three-leaf clover to explain the holy trinity. The Celtic cross has a circle in the center where the lines intersect, and popular legend credits St. Patrick with the combination as a representation of the Gospel uniting old and new ways.
The Claddagh symbol features a heart held between two hands and topped with a crown. Those elements are meant to embody love, loyalty and friendship; the Claddagh historically signified romance and was commonly used as an engagement or wedding ring.
The fourth leaf on a clover indicates luck, and it's an inspiring irony that despite millennia often marred by unlucky circumstances, Irish wit, humor and heart-song soul has stood undimmed.
Maybe that's one reason Irish sensibilities and trappings project so prominently every March 17, and why they resonate so resolutely and universally. Ireland's fabled mist and imagination, paired with hearth, home and faith practicality, strike common, meaningful chords in all of us.
Slainté to you!
Dana D. Kelley is a freelance writer from Jonesboro.