If elementary school arts and crafts are anything to go by, most of us have only the vaguest of notions about Irish culture—a shamrock crown, the Lucky Charms leprechaun, and, if our Kindergarten teachers were really daring, green food coloring in our milk on St. Patrick’s Day. If your Irish-American identity runs deep, or if you’d just like to use St. Patrick’s Day as a way to celebrate a culture new to your family, more meaningful ways to celebrate Celtic culture with your children abound.
The céilí, a gathering with traditional Irish music and dancing, is dear to the heart of most Celtic communities. If your town is fortunate enough to have an Irish cultural center nearby, check to see if they hold a regular céilí (many do, and some offer dancing lessons prior to the event). Some centers even offer programs tailored specifically for young adults, like the Irish Cultural Center at Elms College in Chicopee, Massachusetts, which sponsors a Celtic Adventures for Kids day camp complete with tin whistle, singing and dance lessons. If there’s nothing like that near you, consider having a family céilí of your own. Kids can easily create a simplified traditional Irish bodhrán (frame drum with an animal skin head) and dance to the beat.
What You Need:
- A papier-mâché or cardboard round box (about the size of a hat box). Faux animal hide (or just use the box lid) Twine
- 3 wooden dowels (2 cut to fit the inside of the box)
What You Do:
- Remove the box lid. Cut out the bottom of the box, leaving the box both lidless and bottomless.
- Glue the 2 dowels cut to fit the box crosswise inside the box—this will be the cross beam, where you will hold the drum.
- Decorate the drum and the remaining wooden dowel.
- Next, stretch the animal skin tightly across the top of the drum, securing it around the sides with twine (or skip this step for younger children and simply use the lid).
- Once the glue is dry use the remaining dowel as your beater. Experiment with sounds by using your beater on the rim of the drum or using your hands.
Céilí dancing is social and usually takes place in either pairs or groups. It is not the same as the Irish step dancing popularized by Riverdance; céilí dance steps emphasize extended arm and leg movements and leaping. Some partner steps involve “swinging” (similar to square dancing) and spinning (partners hold hands and whirl), and a céilí may feature a caller to give directions like these. Have children partner off and take turns calling dance steps to dancers on the floor to the beat of your bodhrán.
One of the most famous national treasures of Ireland is the 8th century illuminated Gospel manuscript The Book of Kells. Each section of this calligraphic masterwork is headed with a large, ornately-decorated (illuminated) letter. Many of the illuminated letters borrow from Celtic themes such as knots, spirals or animal figures. It only takes a little imagination and a little gold leaf to create an illuminated letter of your own. Consider going online to look at the design work in the original Book of Kells for inspiration!
What You Need:
- A piece of craft paper
- Pencil and eraser
- Gold leaf (or gold paint)
- Calligraphy pens (optional)
What You Do:
- First, sketch out general form of the letter you wish to illuminate in pencil, using the ruler as a guide.
- Then, decide upon a theme for your letter. You might want to go with a completely geometric theme, using spirals and knots, or a natural theme, using vines and snakes interlocking—either one typifies Celtic design.
- Sketch your design around the block letter.
- Fill in your penciled design with paints—the more colorful, the better! When your letter is dry, gold leaf or gold paint highlights will serve as the crowning touch.
While green food coloring may be fun, there’s not much Irish culture in it! A better bet for authenticity, and one less likely to stain your kitchen, is Irish soda bread. Instead of yeast, soda bread uses baking soda and buttermilk to make it rise. Though it has achieved a reputation as a staple of the Irish diet, its origins may be both Irish and American, making it a good taste of both cultures this St. Patrick’s Day.
What You Need:
- Non-stick spray (optional)
- Raisins, poppy seeds, caraway seeds, orange zest, etc. for flavor
- 4 cups of flour
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- 1 to 1 ½ cups buttermilk
What You Do:
- Flour or spray your cake pan and preset the oven to 425 degrees.
- Combine dry ingredients first (you can add raisins or seeds here for taste), and then stir in buttermilk. The dough will be sticky! If it crumbles easily, add a little more buttermilk.
- Knead the dough gently on a floured surface, then shape it into the cake pan.
- Finally, slash an “X” into the top with a knife, and bake for about 45 minutes.
And, of course, one of the best ways to learn about another culture is by reading. Here are some books to help teach your child about Irish culture:
So Far From Home: The Diary of Mary Driscoll, An Irish Mill Girl, Lowell, Massachusetts 1847 by Barry Denenberg This book takes the perspective of a young Irish immigrant girl in a New England mill of the mid-1800’s.
Black Potatoes: The Story of the Great Irish Famine 1845-1850 by Susan Campbell Bartoletti Intended for about grades 4-6, this is the story of the famine that sent so many Irish men and women in search of a new life in America.
A Pot O' Gold: A Treasury Of Irish Stories, Poetry, Folklore, And (of Course) Blarney, by Kathleen Krull and David McPhail From Joyce to Wilde, from limericks to lyrics, this book has it all—and delightful illustrations, too.