The luck o’ the Irish

Photo © YankeeNovember3

Photo © YankeeNovember3

Are you wearing green today? I am! I’m not fully Irish, but I’ve always felt most attached to the Irish bit o’ my heritage (maybe it comes of being named Molly and having an older brother named Patrick—if you’re reading, happy name day). Lately, with all the St. Patty’s Day fervor—Irish soda bread recipes right and left in the blogosphere, viridescent-clad ladies walking arm-in-arm down the street belting “My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean”—I can’t help but let my thoughts drift to the Emerald Isle. In particular, I’ve been musing on the luck o’ the Irish.

Given the colorful (and I don’t just mean green) history of the Irish people, this phrase has always confused me. Sure, the Irish gave us four-leaf clovers and leprechauns, but it’s not as though the Irish are particularly lucky, all things considered. They’ve faced oppression, famine, prejudice, and internecine strife; their heritage has been reduced, in the United States at least, to a single day of green food coloring and daytime binge drinking per year; and the international financial crisis of the past several years hit them, well, not exactly like a pot of gold. As my thorough internet surfing has confirmed, my confusion is well founded. Experts suggest that the phrase may have originated as a slur at worst or an ironical joke at best. In other words, the luck o’ the Irish is no luck at all.

I’ve heard again and again that the Irish also have bad luck when it comes to celiac disease. The Irish have the highest rate of celiac disease in the world, I’ve read; western Ireland apparently has it even worse than the rest; and the Reverend Peter Green even used JFK’s Irish heritage as additional evidence in his case that the president may have had celiac disease. How’s that for an end-of-the-rainbow reward?

But…when I started looking into the origins of this claim, I found a 1970s study indicating a 1 in 300 prevalence of celiac disease in Ireland. Although multiple articles since then have referenced this statistic to shore up the claim that the Irish are disproportionately affected by celiac, the going statistic for the prevalence in the United States is 1 in 133—clearly a higher probability than 1 in 300. And the more recent the study or source, the less likely the author is to claim that celiac strikes more often in the Irish population. The most recent data seems to indicate the highest rate of celiac disease appears in the Saharawi population in the Western Sahara—not an Irish- or otherwise European-descended population.

So, have the Irish have gotten luckier, or the rest of the world a little unluckier? Or is it simply that the authors of the original study were unlucky in their margin of error?

Photo © cuorhome

Photo © cuorhome

I’m not sure. But as a proud part-Irish lass, I feel lucky to know there’s no pressing need to blame my celiac diagnosis on my Gaelic forebears. Plus, although some celiac-stricken Celts may feel unlucky to lose their Guinness and soda bread, their true national treasure, the potato, is naturally gluten-free. Personally, I count this as good fortune indeed.

Happy Saint Patrick’s Day! I hope your eyes, Irish or otherwise, are smilin’.

Are you celebrating today? Cooking anything special? Perhaps enjoying a pint or two of green beer (or Green’s beer)? Do you, too, find it hard to feel unlucky when potatoes aren’t blighted?

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8 thoughts on “The luck o’ the Irish

  1. Mary Kate says:

    I recall reading (and I wish I remembered where) that Ireland is a remarkably friendly place to travel if you are gluten-free or Celiac. This explains it!

    I’m “celebrating” my endoscopy tomorrow, so no Irish food for me today.

    • Molly says:

      Aw! Good luck! (Are you not supposed to eat all day? It was just “after midnight” for me. My mom and I went out the night before and ate a basket of gluten-full pita bread, ha!)

  2. Laurie C says:

    Oops, I think My Bonnie Lies over tge Ocean is Scottish! Maybe it was When Irish Eyes Are Smiling? 😉

    • Molly says:

      Hmm…tell that to the drunk ladies I was walking behind in the East Village yesterday. Actually, I wish I’d known this to tell them; they were being really obnoxious!

  3. SStitches says:

    Ooo, ooo, pick me! Pick me! I have something to say (When don’t I?!) as a Celiac living in Ireland! Celiac is EXTREMELY prevalent in pockets of Ireland thanks to small communities and — dare I say it — eventual inbreeding. Even if you marry someone who is not a recognisable relative, if you never leave town, it’s going to happen to somebody. You can do all right in Dublin if you know where to go (like the amazing Cornucopia [], which is completely vegetarian and labels every allergen). Belfast is learning. Kind of. They’re mostly learning because I’m loud.

    My biggest surprise was in Sligo, in the west. Western Ireland is still kind of seen like this uninhabited (though, clearly not true) and wild place filled with faeries and hill folk. The western people try to live up to this standard, too. However, the hospital in Sligo sees more than 2000 cases of gluten-related emergencies every year — a huge number for a small town –, and they have the second highest incidence of Celiac in Europe, likely because they know to test. Italy is higher because they now test every child at a certain age. If you think you might end up in Ireland, or just want to read about your ancestral home, check out my travel guide from summer:

    • Molly says:

      Thanks for all this info! I’ve never been to Ireland but I do want to visit. 2,000 cases of gluten-related emergencies in a small town is insane! (What kind of emergencies are those, btw?)

  4. […] is all about Ireland, and—as I’ve previously discussed—celiac disease is often (wrongly?) associated with the Emerald Isle. AIDS makes an appearance in […]

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