Like many avid genealogists, I find myself looking at my roots often. As Saint Patrick’s Day rolls around, I find myself contemplating my Irish roots. I’m sure there are more than I can begin to count, but I specifically know of the Shaw family. These are my grandmother, Harriett Byer’s ancestors. The thing that I find to be sad is that the records are not as extensive as I wish they were. My DNA connects me to this family, but the 1600s is as far as I have been able to trace. I suppose that many people would think that the 1600s is a long way back, but it is barely to the point of their immigration from Ireland to the United States. Even in America, the records aren’t well kept. I find it quite sad that some families are so meticulous in their record keeping, while others just weren’t.
My Grandma Byer and her siblings were proud of their Irish roots. In their later years, they took a trip to Ireland to search for family information, graves, and living family members. I’m not sure if they found much information, but without computers, information was harder to find then. It’s not that computers didn’t exist, but rather the simple fact that none of them knew how to use one. Nevertheless, they had a wonderful trip. They explored castles, town and villages, and they saw the amazing green fields that are synonymous of Ireland. They also did something that I have found interesting, when the had the opportunity to kiss the Blarney Stone. For those who don’t know about the Blarney Stone, “The Blarney Stone (Irish: Cloch na Blarnan) is a block of Carboniferous limestone built into the battlements of Blarney Castle, Blarney, about 8 kilometers (5 miles) from Cork, Ireland. According to legend, kissing the stone endows the kisser with the gift of the gab (great eloquence or skill at flattery).” It’s really just a goofy tradition, but I suppose it is a fun idea, and one they decided was worth testing.
The big Saint Patrick’s Day parties are far more an American tradition than it is as Irish one. In fact, people might be surprised at the real background of the day. Saint Patrick’s Day was made an official Christian feast day in the early 17th century and is observed by the Catholic Church, the Anglican Communion (especially the Church of Ireland), the Eastern Orthodox Church, and the Lutheran Church. In reality, It is a day that commemorates Saint Patrick and the arrival of Christianity in Ireland. It also celebrates the heritage and culture of the Irish in general. Celebrations generally involve public parades and festivals, cèilidhs (a social event at which there is Scottish or Irish folk music and singing, traditional dancing, and storytelling), and the wearing of green attire or shamrocks. Some Catholic Christians also attend church services and historically in Ireland the Lenten restrictions on eating and drinking alcohol were lifted for the day, which is likely where the holiday’s tradition of alcohol consumption came from. So, whether you celebrate in the tradition of America or the tradition of Ireland, Happy Saint Patrick’s Day to one and all.
As a teenager, riding the strip in the evenings of the early 1970s, a favorite place to stop was A & W. The food there was great, but the Root Beer Floats were fantastic. In fact, A & W was famous for their Root Beer Floats. My husband, Bob and I used to go there often, and it was a favorite of his little brother Ron’s too. It never occurred to me in those days, just where Root Beer came from, or who invented it. I didn’t really care. I just knew I liked it, and even though I no longer drink pop, I do like an occasional Root Beer Float.
But…where did Root Beer come from? Well, on this day, May 16, 1866, Charles Elmer Hires first came out with an early version of commercially prepared root beer. Hires was a Quaker pharmacist from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania…his version of Root Beer became famous. I’m sure you’ve heard of Hires Root Beer. It was named after Charles Hires, but it was not the Root Beer that I grew up loving. Maybe that is because, as far as I know, A & W Root Beer was the first make a Root Beer Float. Of course, I could be wrong too.
In the days of Hires’ childhood, children were allowed to work, and at age twelve he had a job as a drugstore boy. Then at age sixteen he moved to Philadelphia and worked in a Pharmacy. He saved his money and when he had earned about $400, he started his own drugstore. Things were different then, and that was possible for a young man to do, o he did it. Nevertheless, he had that entrepreneurial spirit, and maybe that is why he was able to come up with something new.
There are those who say that he learned about root beer on his honeymoon in New Jersey, where the woman who ran the hotel served a herb tea known as “root tea” made from assorted roots. It is said that Hires thought that “root beer” would be more appealing to the working class. He originally packaged the mixture in boxes and sold it to housewives and proprietors of soda fountains. They needed to mix in water, sugar, and yeast. I suppose that after a while that got to be too much work, and eventually it came processed and in bottles. The funny this is that Root Beer was slow to catch on until Reverend Dr Russell Conwell told Hires to present the drink as “the temperance drink” and the greatest health-giving beverage in the world.” Hires was active in the temperance movement, and some say that he wanted root beer to be an alternative to alcohol. I can’t say that he was successful in that respect, because I don’t know anyone who would drink Root Beer instead of beer, unless they already didn’t drink.
My grandmother never learned to drive a car. That was not an unusual situation during her lifetime, even though it is very unusual today. I never could figure out how women…or anyone for that matter…could get by these days without being able to drive, much less manage to raise nine kids and get them through all the stuff needed for their schooling without driving a car. Nevertheless, my grandmother did just that.
Since she didn’t ever drive, and counted on Grandpa for all the things that went with raising a family, I also found myself surprised when she said she was taking a trip to Ireland with her sisters. It wasn’t so much that traveling was so unusual for my grandmother, because my family had taken her places, as had Bob and I. I also know that there were other family members who had taken them traveling…so, while taking a trip wasn’t an unusual thing…taking a trip to Ireland seemed like taking a trip to the moon. It seemed so strange that Grandma and her sisters would be going so far away alone!!
The trip was to follow their roots. They planned to stay with family that lived there. It was the trip of a lifetime for my grandmother and while I felt nervous, I was so excited for her. She would see the green Irish hills, castles and ruins. She would see the coast of Ireland that I had heard was so beautiful, and most of all she could trace her roots back to there. I can’t think of a more exciting trip for my grandmother to get to take. What a wonderful treat for her!
The trip was everything she had hoped it would be, and she returned to us different somehow. She was a world traveler now. She had been to distant shores and visited family and graves far away. I was so happy for her, and secretly hoped I’d be able to make such a trip some day. I imagined seeing castles and the ruins of castles. I wondered what stories I would hear of the past and those who lived in it. I am so happy that my grandmother had the opportunity to take such a trip. The chance to see new places, and meet new people…the chance to go in search of her roots.
Ah, here it comes…the wearin’ of the green, corned beef and cabbage, and green beer for those who like that…Saint Patrick’s Day. It’s a day for partying…and pinching for those who forget to wear green. Most people look at Saint Patrick’s Day as just another party day. And I enjoy the pinching games and the corned beef and cabbage, but I’ll leave the green beer for others.
One thing that Saint Patrick’s Day does make me think of, however, is my Irish background. I think most of us have a little Irish background, and some have a lot. You can usually find it by the last names, like Bob’s grandmother, whose name before her marriage was Leary, or my great grandmother, whose maiden name was Shaw. Many of these ancestors really never knew very much of their Irish roots, because their families have been in the United States for centuries. I don’t remember either of these grandmothers ever mentioning Irish roots, or being particularly Irish.
Still, many people whose Irish traditions, or any other traditions common to their countries, have been passed down from generation to generation, feel a deep attachment to the past and to their roots. Anytime you look back at your family history, you can’t help but feel the beginnings of an attachment to a different time and a different place. It’s easy to envision what life might have been like then. Days before cars and planes, when people traveled by horse and buggy. Days when moving to a new country meant leaving your family behind forever…never to see them again.
Travel wasn’t so easy then. And yet brave people like our ancestors, who wanted to have a better life, set out into the unknown. They had no idea what they would find out there, but they set aside their fears and went anyway. They were pioneers, and were it not for them, we would not be where we are today, or have what we have today. They are also the inventors. Someone had to come up with all of the modern conveniences that we have today. They were people with that same pioneer spirit. What would our world be like without those people and people like them. People who carried their traditions into a new world, or people who came to the new world and started traditions of their own.
Much of my background is German and English, but there is some Irish, and the Irish family members that I have had the pleasure of knowing were very much a treasure as valuable as the emerald colored hills of the old country. So I’ll carry on the tradition today. Wearin’ the green, and pinching those who forget, and eating corned beef and cabbage with loved ones. Because, today…everybody is a little bit Irish. Happy Saint Patrick’s Day to all.