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Irish or not, dance a little jig!

Irish or not, dance a little jig!
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You’ve heard of the luck of the Irish, but how can you get as much good fortune as possible on St Paddy’s Day? Discover authentic Irish past times you didn’t know about, and learn the surprising history of others.

“Drowning the shamrock”

“Drowning the shamrock”
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St Patrick’s Day, March 17, was originally a religious feast honouring the patron saint of Ireland but has turned into a day to celebrate all things Irish. Legend has it that the good luck of the shamrock began when it was a revered pagan symbol, with the missionary Patrick later using its three leaves to explain the Holy Trinity (whether he actually did so is up for debate). Today, however, the shamrock remains a secular token of good fortune. In Ireland, it’s considered lucky to “drown” the shamrock. “Traditionally, the shamrock was dunked into a glass of whiskey, the whiskey was then drunk, and the shamrock at the bottom of the glass thrown over the drinker’s left shoulder,” says Christine Kinealy, PhD, director of Ireland’s Great Hunger Institute and professor of history at Quinnipiac University. “Allegedly, it was St Patrick himself who first dunked the shamrock in the glass of whiskey, after wearing it during his feast day – but this is highly unlikely as he died on March 17, before the day was celebrated.”

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“Letting the devil out” of Irish soda bread

“Letting the devil out” of Irish soda bread
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Many variations of so-called “Irish soda bread” made with eggs, butter, raisins, seeds and sugar are eaten on St Paddy’s Day. But if you want to keep to the traditional Irish soda bread recipe, use only four ingredients: flour (often wholemeal flour), baking soda (called “bread soda” in Ireland), buttermilk and salt. Historically, this recipe could be made by anyone thanks to readily available ingredients, including using soda instead of yeast for leavening, and because it could be cooked in a cast-iron pot over a flame, as opposed to an oven, which most people didn’t have. But for the bread to be lucky, you have to cut a cross on the top “to let the devil out,” as well as to release steam during cooking, Kinealy says. “In both Christian and pagan (Celtic) traditions, the cross is meant to ward off the devil and protect the household. But, the baking of soda bread was not really a custom until the late 1800s.”

Looking for four-leaf clovers

Looking for four-leaf clovers
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The shamrock, which has three leaves, and the four-leaf clover aren’t the same thing. “Biologically speaking, four-leaf clovers are extremely rare – usually they only have three clovers, and a fourth clover is a mutation,” Kinealy says. “There are likely 10,000 three-leaf clovers for every four-leaf clover.” Since they are so rare, finding one makes one feel lucky. As Scientific American explains, using those odds, you’d need to scan a clover field of about 1.2m to find one with four leaves – totally doable! And instead of counting each leaf, try scanning the clovers quickly: Your brain will be able to notice deviations in the pattern you see.

Learn more about the origins of superstitions and lucky charms.

Wearing o’ the green

Wearing o’ the green
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It’s considered lucky to don the colour green in celebration of Ireland on St Patrick’s Day. But you might be surprised to learn that the colour has a political history behind it. “The wearing of green was a political and cultural identity movement in Ireland, and the stand against [British] colonialism,” Kinealy says. The Irish ballad “Wearing of the Green” laments the unsuccessful rebel uprising of 1798, and the colour remained symbolic for Irish nationalism leading up to the country’s independence in 1922. “In the Irish flag, which was first brought to Ireland in 1848, the green in the tricolour represents Catholics,” Kinealy says. (The orange represents Protestants, and the white symbolises peace between them.) Of course, green also fits in with Ireland’s lush landscape. “Ireland itself is even known as the ‘Green Isle’ or the ‘Emerald Isle,’” Kinealy says.

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Or wearing blue?

Or wearing blue?
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But, you could also celebrate Ireland by wearing blue, which was the background colour of the first coat of arms when the Kingdom of Ireland was created by England’s King Henry VIII; the hue also has earlier links to a figure in Irish mythology, Flaitheas Éireann, who wore blue. Later, the Order of St Patrick knighthood also wore blue. Even today, “the national colour of Ireland is blue – St Patrick’s Blue,” Kinealy says. The colour appears on the Constitution of Ireland and the Presidential Standard flag as in the old coat of arms: a golden harp on a dark blue background.

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Pinching those not wearing green

Pinching those not wearing green
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Another reason to wear green for luck is that legend has it leprechauns can’t see you if you’re wearing the verdant colour. And if they see you, they will pinch you! Likewise, tradition says you can pinch someone on St Patrick’s Day who isn’t wearing green – but this may not be a true Irish custom. In fact, leprechauns originally wore red in Irish folklore. “Pinching those not wearing green appears to be an American invention,” says Kinealy.

Find out 13 surprising things you didn’t know were considered bad luck.

But not eating green food

But not eating green food
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Dying food (or rivers, or beer, or anything else) green is actually not an Irish past time – and in fact, has some decidedly unlucky associations in Irish history. “Green food is not an Irish tradition, possibly due to the historical trauma of the Great Famine, when Irish folk literally had no choice but to eat grass in an attempt to survive, then they would often die of starvation with green-coloured mouths from eating grass,” Kinealy says. So forget the green beer – if you want to imbibe the Irish way, sample some of the thick Irish stout called Guinness.

Staying sober

Staying sober
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Or, skip the alcohol altogether. St Patrick’s Day falls during Lent, a religious season of sacrifice, but the rules were traditionally relaxed for this feast day. However, St Patrick’s Day in Ireland is still not traditionally the raucous celebration it is in Australia, Canada and the US – and it might bring you better fortune (and save you a hangover) to not use the holiday as an excuse to overindulge. In fact, up until the 1970s pubs were closed in Ireland on St Paddy’s Day, and celebrations usually included a trip to church. In a strange reversal of tradition, the Irish government was actually inspired by global celebrations to create a multi-day St Patrick’s festival in 1995 to boost tourism. But, not everyone is happy about the associations between St Patrick’s Day and drinking. “There is a large movement to stop associating the day and the Irish with drinking – and now a number of ‘Sober’ parades,” Kinealy says.

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Eating Irish bacon

Eating Irish bacon
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Although there might seem like nothing more Irish than eating corned beef and cabbage on St Paddy’s Day, this meal is actually not an Irish tradition at all. In Ireland of yore, it would have been unlucky to kill cows, which were mainly used for dairy. On St Patrick’s Day, cured pork (Irish bacon) was more likely to be eaten in Ireland. “In Gaelic Ireland, cattle were symbols of the wealthy and were only killed when they were too old or were no longer able to produce milk. There were more pigs kept in Ireland than cows, so more pork and bacon was consumed than beef.”

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