As the old saying goes, everyone’s Irish on St. Patrick’s Day.
The Ancient Order of Hibernians — an exclusive organization that only allows Catholics of Irish descent to join their ranks — exemplifies this notion. Every year on St. Patrick’s Day, the Schenectady Hibernians open their doors and extend their hospitality so that nonmembers can join in the celebration of Ireland’s patron saint.
But the Hibernians’ celebration isn’t all about quaffing beer or forking down corned beef. It’s about raising awareness of the rich Irish culture and customs that are often forgotten amid the stereotypes many associate with the Irish.
For instance, even asking for corned beef at the Hibernians is likely to garner a cocked eyebrow or dismissive grunt. Though they serve it during their celebration, it’s not considered traditional Irish fare and is thus scoffed at by those who are ferociously proud of their heritage.
“Lamb is more traditional,” said Ned Martin, the corporate president of the Schenectady Hibernians, as he stood by the bar of the hall on State Street Sunday. “And potatoes. Every Irish kitchen has to have potatoes.”
Dwelling with the Hibernians on St. Patrick’s Day is a good way to get a crash course on true, unvarnished Irish culture — what it means to be Irish and the strife the Irish people have faced over generations. Guests can find a speaker lecturing on the formation of Northern Ireland at one end of the hall and a “seanchai” — a traditional Irish story teller — spinning yarns at the other.
Toasts at the bar are sometimes in Gaelic, as is the welcome posted over the entrance. Irish music echoes throughout the hall, which is decked out in various hues of green.
“We try to give people a taste of who we are,” said Jacqueline Clute, the secretary of the state Ladies Ancient Order of Hibernians and the corporate event chairwoman for the Schenectady chapter.
“It’s a time for us to get together and show our true color,” she added.
Established in 1888, Schenectady’s chapter is among the oldest in the state. The Lady Hibernians, with a charter dating back to 1901, are one of the oldest such organizations in the nation.
With St. Patrick’s Day falling on a Monday, the Hibernians planned a two-day celebration at their hall. And while many seemed to have a beer in hand, everyone seemed to have their heritage in the forefront of their thoughts, rather than eating and drinking.
“It’s a remembrance of where we’ve been, how we’ve changed and where we’re going,” Clute said. “It’s a day to be proud that we’re still here.”
Part of the remembrance is a review of the tumultuous history of the Irish, a people that faced brutal conquest at the hands of the British during the 17th century and were nearly starved out of existence by famine during the mid-19th century. Those fleeing the country for a better life in the United States often found themselves subjected to discrimination here.
When Rose Ann Rabatoy’s great-grandfather immigrated to United States, his surname was Muconry. But he changed it to Conroy after arriving in Maryland, because he realized he’d never find work otherwise.
“Because no Irish need apply,” she said, quoting a message that often was posted by employers.
For Betsy Henderson, being among the Hibernians on St. Patrick’s Day brings her back to the uproarious celebrations she experienced growing up in Boston, where the Irish have a strong influence. A third-generation Irish-American, she said being surrounded by the culture helps her to recall those times.
“That was my heritage growing up,” she said. “For me, it’s a reminder of my upbringing.”
Clute said the day is a time when people of Irish descent can revel in their heritage, recalling the struggles and the triumphs. She said celebrating on St. Patrick’s Day helps bring them all closer together.
“The Irish community is close-knit in a lot of ways,” she said. “You have to be that way to keep your culture alive.”