Five Irish Myths and Legends We Take for Truth
When I started researching and writing No Stone Unturned, I had a tremendous task at hand. Given the fact that my main characters are Irish and the plot is steeped in Irish history and mystery, I needed to learn about all things Irish. From the politics and brutality of the IRA, to Ireland’s colorful legends, dialects, culture and people—I turned to some amazing consultants. From law enforcement professionals, folks of Irish descent, FBI agents who specialized in Counterterrorism and the Irish Republican Army, to historians who taught me about the legends of Irish hoards – they all told some fabulous stories during my extensive research.
While doing all this intense research, I learned not only enchanting Irish legends, but also some common misconceptions about Irish traditions that I want to share with you now. I hope you find them as endearing and fascinating as I do.
- The fallacy of the St. Patrick’s Day parade
Did you, like me, believe that the St. Patrick’s Day parade was a centuries old tradition that began in Ireland? Well, it is centuries old, but the first parade was held, not in Ireland, but right here in the United States. Boston held its first related parade in 1737, while the first “official” parade was held in New York in 1766. Ireland, in fact, did not hold its first St. Patrick’s Day parade until 1903 in the town of Waterford, followed by Dublin in 1931. Now, of course, the parade in Dublin is enormous, colorful, and theatrical, and includes everything from international bands to amazing displays. But its early days are American-based.
- The fallacy of corn beef and cabbage
Many of us, myself included, assumed that this was a traditional Irish dish with its origins deeply rooted in its mother country. Unlike Irish soda bread and Irish stew, that’s not the case. In truth, centuries ago, the main meat used in Ireland was not beef, but pork, the reason being that it was inexpensive. Lean, smoked pork loin (similar to Canadian bacon) was known as Irish bacon, and was frequently used for its flavor and its low cost.
Upon settling in the US, Irish immigrants found that just the opposite was true—that pork was prohibitive in price and that beef was the American staple and therefore affordable.
The Irish working class in New York, who faced the same discrimination as the Jewish and Italian immigrants, found themselves frequenting Jewish delis and lunch carts where they got their first taste of corn beef—a flavorful but cheaper alternative to pork, one that tasted much like their Italian bacon. And cabbage was far less expensive than the traditional Irish potatoes. So corn beef and cabbage, cooked in the same pot, was born as an easily-prepared, cost-effective meal. From New York City, this dish expanded across the country and was soon an Irish-American favorite nationwide. Corn beef and cabbage was even served at President Lincoln’s inauguration dinner in 1862!
- The fallacy of Sadie Hawkins Day
We’ve all heard of the legendary holiday Sadie Hawkins Day, commonly thought to be February 29th (Leap Day). It’s said that on this one day of the year, the romantic tables are turned and women can pursue men, even ask for their hand in marriage, rather than vice versa. In truth, Sadie Hawkins Day stems from a fictional character created by Al Capp in the comic strip Li’l Abner, where a father (a prominent citizen in the fictional town of Dogpatch) declares there be a day when his homely, unmarried daughter Sadie can find a man. On that day (which is actually not February 29th, but sometime in late November), a footrace was held so that all unmarried women could pursue Dogpatch’s eligible bachelors.
Even though the above is a fictitious, there is an old Irish tradition called St. Bridget’s Complaint which grants women the right to propose marriage on that very day of the year. Dating back to 5th century Ireland, this tradition says that St. Bridget complained to St. Patrick about women having to withstand men’s procrastination about proposing marriage. In turn, St. Patrick legendarily stated that women could indeed propose marriage on this one annually designated date. So February 29th does hold significance in Irish folklore.
- The fallacy of the Celts and Celtic jewelry
While the words “Celt” and “Celtic jewelry” are usually equated with Ireland, that’s only a small piece of the pie. The origins of Celtic jewelry are believed to date back to somewhere between 2000 BC and 550 AD, during which time silver and gold were used by Celtic craftsmen to create jewelry adorned with the symbols we know as Celtic. Therefore, the much-loved symbols you see in Celtic jewelry herald, not only from Ireland, but from far beyond. In No Stone Unturned, I focus on Irish-made Celtic jewelry, since all the artistic elements of the book trace back to Ireland. My protagonist, Fiona McKay, creates her own unique line of Celtic jewelry, and the jewelry pieces are inspired by the stories told in ancestral tapestries passed on from her great-grandmother down to her. The existence of those tapestries are the very things that wind up threatening her life. As an aside (and because I so admire Fiona’s talents), the goldsmith I consulted with for this project and I have created fionamckayjewelry.com, where you can see and purchase some of the pieces Fiona gifted to the Forensic Instincts team in No Stone Unturned.
- The Irish Spring commercial that never happened
Although this is a personal story and not a widespread fallacy, I had to close by sharing this favorite anecdote with you. It came up when one of my gracious Irish consultants, who’d come over with her family when she was in grade school, was educating me in the varied Irish accents. As she taught me, all areas of Ireland have regional accents. For example, people from Dublin (where she was from) speak faster, and the farther north you go, the faster the residents speak. The Northern-born antagonist in No Stone Unturned spoke with an Irish brogue, which had hints of Scottish in it, given his hometown’s proximity to Scotland.
She told me that four months after arriving in the States, she and her sister, both of whom were childhood beauties, went to audition for a television commercial that advertised the then-popular Irish Spring soap. As luck would have it, they did an excellent job and were commended for their talent. In the end, however, neither of them got the job. Why? Because they were told that their Irish accents weren’t authentic enough! Clearly, those television producers must have been looking for an entirely different regional accent—so much so that they missed the authenticity right before their eyes.
I hope these yarns made you smile and taught you a wee bit of what you didn’t know before!