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?
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?