By Susannah Bryan
South Florida Sun-Sentinel
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - As a lad in Ireland, Dermott Reid never downed a pint of green beer or got pinched for not wearing green on St. Patrick's Day.
Those are American customs, said the Dublin native, now a resident of Sunrise, Fla.
"St. Patrick's Day is a religious holiday in Ireland," Reid said. "The first thing you do is go to church."
Here in America, March 17 is a day of beer-fueled frivolity for many, a secular holiday filled with visions of shamrocks and leprechauns more than penance and prayer.
"The big thing here is corned beef and cabbage," said Reid, who left Dublin in 1963. "In Ireland, you'd have to go looking for it. It's not served on St. Patrick's."
Nor is Dublin's River Liffey tinted green, he said wryly, referring to Chicago's tradition of dying its river green.
Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland, was born in Britain about 389 A.D. Captured by pirates at age 16, he was sold as a slave in Ireland but escaped six years later. He eventually returned to bring Christianity to the Celtic people of the Emerald Isle.
There was a time when Ireland's pubs were closed on St. Patrick's Day in homage to the holiday and the saint it honors, said James Doan, president of the South Florida Irish Studies Consortium and a professor of liberal arts at Nova Southeastern University in Davie.
Pubs started staying open for the holiday about 30 years ago, primarily for tourists who wanted to celebrate in the Emerald Isle, Doan said.
America's first St. Patrick's Day parades were held in Boston and New York in the 1700s, sparking a tradition that continues to this day.
This year, thousands will celebrate at Irish pubs and festivals throughout South Florida, including parades in Hollywood and Delray Beach as well as the Irish Fest on Flagler in West Palm Beach and the Irish Fest on Atlantic in Delray.
The festivals are a way to celebrate Irish heritage, its music, food and dance, said Sheila Hynes, executive director of the Pompano Beach-based Irish Cultural Institute of Florida and organizer of the Irish festivals in Delray Beach and West Palm Beach.
Hynes, the first in her family born in America, is one of about 500,000 Irish-Americans in South Florida. She left New York's Rockaway Beach neighborhood in 1980 and now lives in Boca Raton.
Hynes' mother, Irish-born Elizabeth Murphy, moved to New York in the 1940s but never gave up her Irish citizenship, saying she was only here temporarily.
"It was hard for her to think she would never be going back," said Hynes, whose mother died in 1999. "You're leaving behind so much: your home, your family, your memories. These festivals bring back good memories of what they had back home."
Today, about 44 million Americans of Irish heritage live in the United States.
Many can trace their ancestry back to the Potato Famine of 1845 to 1850 in which 1 million perished and 2 million fled to North America on so-called coffin ships.
Among their descendants is Michael Kerrigan, 54, of Miramar, Fla., whose great-grandfather came to America as a young boy in the 1840s at the time of the Famine.
Today, the Republic of Ireland has almost 4 million inhabitants and Northern Ireland another million and a half. But there are 70 million descendants of the Irish Diaspora throughout the world, Kerrigan said.
"The Irish went out and populated the world," he said.
The wave of Irish who fled to escape the famine was not the first to seek solace on America's shores.
In the 1600s, about 50,000 Irish traveled to the New World to escape economic and political strife in their homeland. About 500,000 arrived during the 1700s and about 1 million between 1815 and 1844, according to historical accounts.
Some of the newcomers met with an anti-Irish backlash, with merchants and landlords posting signs that read "No Irish Need Apply."
"That was because of the drinking and the fighting," said Reid, who volunteers at the Lighthouse of Broward County, an agency that helps the blind and visually impaired. "Unfortunately, we have a reputation."
While Ireland is known for its Guinness and Harp, the isle ranks No. 9 in the world in its consumption of beer, Hynes said. Germany is No. 1, she said.
Yet Ireland is known for its pubs, the place where many a tale is told over Irish whiskey and ale. In Ireland, everyone has a "local," or favorite pub, Hynes said.
Today, many Irish-Americans are embracing Irish music, dance and literature in a renewal of cultural identity and pride, Hynes said.
"Here, St. Patrick's Day is a day of revelry and a celebration of all things Irish," said Noel Kingston, 63, an Irish-born tenor and Boca Raton, Fla., resident who is fluent in Gaelic. Kingston is a wee busy on St. Patrick's Day, taking the stage as performer and master of ceremonies at festivals in West Palm Beach and Delray Beach.
Kingston moved to New York at age 24 in search of the American experience, and never left.
Three weeks after his arrival, the Killarney native had the Luck O' the Irish at a County Kerry dance in Manhattan, where he met Una, the woman who would become his wife. She, too, is from Ireland, born 14 miles from Kingston's hometown.
Celebrating St. Patrick's Day is just part of the fun of finding your Irish heart and soul-even if you're not Irish.
"Over here, it's a big ceilidh," Kerrigan said, using the Gaelic word for party (pronounced kelli).
"Everybody's Irish on St. Paddy's Day."
© 2002 South Florida Sun-Sentinel.
Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.