It is perhaps his love of eloquence that has so endeared St. Patrick to the Irish. Son of a Roman family who lived in western Britain, he was carried off by pirates at the age of 16 and sold into slavery in Ireland. Once he escaped, he chose to enter the priesthood, and when Rome decided to send an evangelical mission to Ireland, Patrick responded to the call, saying that in his dreams he heard the voices of the Irish crying, "We beg you, come and walk among us again."
Soon after returning to Ireland as a missionary, Patrick met with King Laegaire to explain the doctrines of Christianity. Surrounded by Druid priests, enemies and successors of his former captors, the ex-slave held up a shamrock, the humble clover that grows wild all over the island. Using the image of its three leaves growing from one stem, he explained the mystery of the Trinity so eloquently that, although King Laegaire did not adopt the new creed, Patrick was given permission to travel freely through the land.
For 20 years he wandered through Ireland, preaching the "good news" and building 385 churches. He established a school beside each one, and these centers of learning transformed Ireland from a country with no written alphabet to a land of scholars. He had given the storytelling Irish the greatest treasure they could imagine: written literature.
It is no wonder, then, that the children of Erin remember their patron saint so fondly. And on the anniversary of his death, for more than 1,500 years they have honored him with the longest-running Irish wake in history.
Although it is impossible to say exactly when March 17 was first celebrated as St. Patrick's Day, it is now a national holiday in Ireland. In every household, slices of crusty soda bread, a platter of poached fish and a "Patrick's pot" of beer or whiskey are offered to guests in the tradition of hospitality, and the shamrock appears everywhere.
When the American War of Independence broke out in 1776, Irish immigrants enthusiastically joined the uprising against England, Ireland's ancient oppressor. In one of the first American victories, the British were evacuated from Boston and revolutionary troops marched in on March 17, 1776. George Washington's authorized password for the day was "Saint Patrick." An official observance of the festival by the American Army was recorded at Valley Forge in 1778: "There was an extra issue of grog to the army and all made merry and were good friends."
Today, some 40 million Americans claim a link to the green hills of Erin. For two centuries Irish blood has flowed in the veins of presidents, pioneers, statesmen, military leaders, industrialists, scientists, artists and educators.
And on Saint Patrick's Day, every city has its parade, leprechauns lurk in greeting cards, Irish stew headlines menus and even beer flows green. Then, "Kiss me, I'm Irish" is an offer that's hard to refuse.
BEEF 'N' BEER IRISH STEW
3 tablespoons flour
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1 1/2 pounds beef, trimmed of fat and cut in 1-inch cubes
3 tablespoons oil
3 to 5 onions, sliced in thick rings
1/2 teaspoon crumbled dried thyme
12 ounces Guinness stout
1/2 teaspoon dry mustard
Combine flour, salt and pepper. Dredge meat in flour mixture, shaking off excess. Heat oil in heavy skillet over medium heat. Add onions and saute until tender. Remove with slotted spoon and reserve.
Brown meat in hot oil in batches, stirring to ensure even browning. Return onions to skillet. Add thyme, stout and mustard. Cover and bring to boil. Reduce heat to low and cook 1 1/2 to 2 hours until meat is very tender. Makes 4 servings.
POACHED SALMON WITH LEEKS
1 (5-pound) whole salmon fillet
Chopped fresh dill
1/4 cup white wine
Place salmon on double thickness foil large enough to gather up around fish, pouch-fashion. Sprinkle 2 tablespoons chopped dill on top. Add wine. Loosely gather up foil and crimp edges to seal. Place in baking dish. Bake at 300 degrees 10 to 15 minutes per pound or until fish flakes when tested with fork. (Do not overcook or flesh will dry out.)
Let salmon cool few minutes before opening foil. Remove fish to warm serving platter. Surround with Leeks. Sprinkle with more chopped dill and garnish with watercress. Makes 8 to 10 minutes.
8 to 10 medium leeks, trimmed and thoroughly washed
2 cups milk
2 tablespoons butter
Place leeks in enamel or stainless steel skillet large enough to hold them in 1 or 2 layers. Pour in milk and heat until almost boiling. (Do not boil or milk will curdle.) Immediately reduce heat and simmer 20 minutes or until tender.
Drain. (Reserve milk to make chowder with any leftover salmon.) Add butter and season to taste with salt and pepper.
IRISH SODA BREAD
4 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1 to 1 1/2 cups buttermilk
1 tablespoon butter, softened