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8 Ways to Get in the St. Patrick’s Day Spirit — Without Booze

Yes, you can still draw in the luck of the Irish without downing green beer after green beer


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Peter Gamlen

At New York’s St. Patrick’s Day parade 13 years ago, Bill Spencer Reilly, 73, saw a T-shirt with a slogan that caught his eye: “St. Patrick’s Day Today, Hungover Tomorrow.”

Though drinking and next-day hangovers may be a central part of celebrating the holiday for many, they don’t have to be, says Reilly, who founded Sober St. Patrick’s Day, a family-friendly celebration of Irish culture and art — without the alcohol — in New York City.

In its 13th year, the organization brings in Irish musicians, dancers and other artists, aiming to “reclaim the day” from a binge-drinking holiday to restore it to what Reilly says it should be: a celebration of the depth of Irish culture and the legacy of St. Patrick.

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Elizabeth Stack, the executive director of the American Irish Historical Society in New York and former executive director of the Irish American Heritage Museum, agrees with the sentiment, saying the common toast in Ireland, “sláinte” (pronounced slawn-cha), is a toast to good health. And drinking in excess isn’t necessarily healthy for older adults

Here are some ways to ring in the luck of the Irish this St. Patrick’s Day on Sunday, March 17, without drinking alcohol — or at least not making it the center of your celebration.

Wear green — the national color of Ireland

Reilly says everybody wants to be Irish on St. Patrick’s Day, and everyone is Irish on St. Patrick’s Day — but it’s highly recommended to don green apparel to show it. Stack says people in Ireland also wear green on St. Patrick’s Day, but it’s far more subtle — they tend to wear fresh sprigs of shamrock or a shamrock-shaped badge or ribbon — and you likely won’t get pinched if you happen to forget emerald garments or accessories. “That’s an American thing,” Stack says.  

Watch a St. Patrick’s Day parade — and take it up a notch by walking the length

Stack says that in Ireland, it’s tradition to watch the parade, then head home to cook Irish foods and spend time with family.

Make the day even healthier by getting out for a walk, which is “one of the best things you could do for yourself on St. Patrick’s Day,” Stack says. Perhaps even follow the parade route to get in the spirit.  

Try a mocktail, nonalcoholic beer or green juice

Stack says Guinness makes alcohol-free stout that anyone can enjoy without the buzz, and many major beer-makers also have alcohol-free options.

For mocktails, consider experimenting with a cordial or nonalcoholic syrup to mix some of your favorite flavors, Stack suggests. Bonus points if it’s green.

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For a really healthy nonalcoholic drink, Stack says, juicing cucumber, oranges, apples and celery will nourish you with loads of antioxidants — and the mixture is green. Although having a green drink can be thematically festive, don’t limit yourself: Stack says there’s a huge variety of juices you can make at home that aren’t green but still on the right track with staying healthy.

Teatime and telling tales isn’t just for the English

Storytelling over afternoon tea and finger foods such as light sandwiches, crumpets or sweet treats “is a very Irish thing to do … because the Irish are best known for telling stories,” Reilly says.

He says it’s like a timeout during the day to catch up with loved ones. Barry’s Tea is a popular Irish brand, but any brand will do.

Make traditional Irish food

Corned beef and cabbage is how the U.S. defines classic Irish food, but Stack says Ireland’s traditional dish is actually bacon and cabbage. You can find recipes here. Other popular dishes include colcannon — a variety of Irish mashed potatoes typically made with spring onion and cabbage and topped with a sprinkle of bacon, and of course, there is the classic shepherd’s pie.

If you’re more of a baker, try your hand at soda bread, which can be made with four main ingredients: baking soda, flour, buttermilk and salt. It typically requires less than an hour in the oven. Recipes vary, but it’s important to score an X-shape at the top of your circular loaf before baking. Irish lore says that lets the fairies out, Stack says.

Embrace music and dance

There should be plenty of opportunities to watch Irish dance and listen to music, Stack says. (Check out the many parades and festivals going on that weekend around the country.) For Reilly, the “happy and free” rhythms and steps of Ireland’s culture are at the center of Sober St. Patrick’s Day celebrations.

“The unique thing about Irish culture is that its music and dance is the most intergenerational thing in the world,” he says. “You can have kids 6 years old dancing with someone who’s 96 years old.”

There are plenty of options online to listen to trad music (traditional Irish music) or learn how to step dance through YouTube, Reilly suggests. AARP New York will host intro to Irish step dancing courses through Zoom. You can register to join here.

Stack says a large part of Irish dance is done with just the lower body. Although you may see a lot of hopping and fast movements, there’s no reason you can’t simply tap along to the beat while seated. 

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Take in Irish films

When you’re wiped out from walking and dancing the day away, watch classic Irish films or movies that take place in Ireland, Stack suggests. Her recommendations include the 1952 classic rom-com The Quiet Man, starring John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara; the more contemporary Brooklyn, starring Saoirse Ronan as an Irish immigrant in 1950s Brooklyn; or The Banshees of Inisherin, which takes place on a remote island off the Ireland coast. Check out more Ireland-loving films to stream on St. Patrick’s Day.

Be more like St. Patrick and take time to reflect, celebrate life

There’s plenty of folklore surrounding who St. Patrick was. Some say he drove out snakes from Ireland, but research debunks that, insisting that Ireland never had snakes to begin with. Though some of these myths will appeal to kids and those looking for fun storytelling, Stack says there are actual lessons to take away from the saint.

“I think the lesson from Patrick is really one of tolerance. ... This was a man who was enslaved and escaped the country and yet came back. So he was known to be very patient,” Stack says. She suggests spending time in reflective solitude — then spending the rest of the day spreading joy with friends and family.

Reilly says the Irish need to celebrate stems from a history of undergoing oppression and poverty. Celebrating with a positive attitude while manifesting goodwill in your life is really how to draw in the luck of the Irish, he says.

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