When St. Patrick lit his paschal fire on the Hill of Slane not long after arriving in Ireland in 432 AD, little did he realize that smiling Irish eyes would still be turned toward that blaze almost 1,600 years later. The patron saint of Ireland challenged High King Laoghaire on the adjacent Hill of Tara when he lit a fire on the eve of Beltaine, a Druid holiday that forbade fire-making until one was lit at Tara. Captured immediately but charmingly persuasive, Patrick converted the king’s daughter — and soon everyone else.
Born Maewyn Succat in Scotland in 387 AD, Patrick was captured at 16 by Irish marauders and enslaved in Ireland for six years as a shepherd. A dream led him to walk 200 miles to the sea and escape to Britain, then to a monastery in France, where he studied the newly evolving Christianity with the promise of a gentler life. Another dream directed him to go back to Ireland and save souls, which he did, thanks to his renowned eloquence and familiarity with Irish customs.
But I think something else was at play. I think he simply missed the food and the Irish people. Ireland is a vibrant nation today, with modern cities and a thriving tech industry, but when you travel in the country, life goes on at much the same rhythm as millennia ago. The greenest grass on Earth feeds cows that produce rich milk. Oysters, mussels and delicate cockles cluster on the briny shores; rivers filled with salmon and trout wind through the mountains and wide central plain. Herds of sheep, in no hurry, stop cars on the road. Busy bees make honey, chickens lay fertile eggs, and a hospitable people spend time talking and laughing rather than making sure their stone walls are pointed. No wonder he returned.
In the United States, our celebrations are far more raucous that what transpires in Eire. Here, menus feature corned beef and cabbage, an entirely North American invention, and the green beer flows freely in bars. Foods more commonly enjoyed in Ireland are smoked salmon, Galway oysters, potatoes in any and every guise, and farmstead cheeses. One ubiquitous component to the Irish table is brown bread, a simple loaf made with buttermilk or sour milk, baking soda and stone-ground whole wheat flour.
Fancy versions of Irish soda bread add raisins or currants, and sometimes caraway seeds, but the bread found on most tables is a simpler sort, wheaty and dense and the perfect foil for rich Irish cheeses.
This St. Patrick’s day, celebrate by baking soda bread and serve it with Irish cheese and a bracing cup of tea. Thanks to the efforts of the Irish dairy council, these cheeses and Irish butter are widely available in supermarkets but if you want a truer vision of village life in Ireland, stroll down to the Cheese Shoppe, where all-things-Irish aficionado Bill Clark holds court on St. Patrick’s day and will offer you “Cede Mile Failte” — a hundred-thousand welcomes!