Of St. Patrick and Irish Eats

A bit about the beloved saint and a recipe for cottage pie.

A comforting meal honors St. Patrick.
A comforting meal honors St. Patrick. (photo: Sophia Institute Press)

On March 17, countless people in many countries, including Japan and Russia, gather together to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. From eating corned beef and cabbage to wearing green, picking up shamrocks, parading around, and drinking green beer, people leap into the spirit of this beloved saint’s special day. 

And why green? The “wearing of the green” is now universally linked to this day, but back to the celebration’s beginning, the Irish then wore the color blue, which is affiliated with Ireland. Why? The official color of the Order of St. Patrick was sky blue, a nod to the color of choice of the saint himself.

But as one historian has noted, these global celebrations have had very little to do with the story of the real St. Patrick, the patron saint and “Apostle of Ireland.” 

Born about A.D. 365 as Maewyn Succat in Britannia (now modern-day Britain), he was apparently kidnapped by Irish bandits when he was a teenager and became a slave to an Irish chieftain. As caretaker for his master’s sheep, Maewyn Succat reportedly prayed to God often each day.

According to legend, he apparently received an angelic vision inspiring him to flee back to his homeland, where he committed his life to becoming a priest. After his ordination, Maewyn Succat received another angelic visitation, urging him to return to Ireland to preach his faith and to convert the people to Catholicism.

At that time, Pope Celestine changed Maewyn Succat’s name to Patrick and gave him the mission to go to Ireland. As a missionary on the Emerald Isle, Patrick has been credited with converting segments of the population to Catholicism. Historians note that by the time he died, St. Patrick had founded churches, monasteries and schools, but even to this day no one is totally sure about all his activities because many legends about St. Patrick’s life in Ireland cannot be verified. Did he actually drive all the snakes out of Ireland? Use the shamrock to explain the Trinity? Create the Celtic cross? See his walking stick become a tree? Defeat Celtic heroes?

Regardless of facts and legends, it is well worth celebrating this holy life.

Ireland has a large Catholic base, and Irish Catholics observe March 17, St. Patrick’s Day, as a holy day of obligation. And then they may go and celebrate with mugs of Irish ale or Irish comfort food.

 *   *   *   *   *   *   *

Irish Recipe to honor St. Patrick, who, as Cooking With the Saints, relates, “was never officially canonized a saint by any pope but he has received popular veneration.”

(This recipe is found in the Catholic cookbook Cooking With the Saints, published by Sophia Institute Press in 2019.)

Cottage Pie

(Recipe credit: Chef Terry Walline, Brion’s Grille, Fairfax, Virginia)

Serves 9

A comforting meal to ward off winter chills, this Irish dish is composed of ground beef (a shepherd’s pie is made with minced lamb; often people confuse the two names) and is topped with mashed potatoes. In the past, cooks made this dish to use up leftover meats and lined the baking dish with mashed potatoes as well as using them as a topping. Depending on the cook’s on-hand supplies, the pie may contain vegetables such as peas, chopped carrots, and/or diced celery. The dish is usually moistened with a hearty gravy. Some historians say that cooks created the dish in Scotland and Northern England. 

Chef Terry Walline says about the roux, or thickener: “Using oil or butter is just a flavor preference, depending upon what you are thickening. A quick reheat and stir will loosen it so it will pour out of the pan slowly while thickening your liquid. The key is to drizzle in the roux while whisking so you don’t over-thicken your liquid. Liquid must be at least 185 degrees for it to thicken; this also applies to whitewashes using arrowroot or corn starch as a thickening agent, in case you want to make this recipe gluten-free.” 

For the mashed potato topping

  • 1 1/2 pounds potatoes, peeled and cubed
  • 3 to 4 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • Milk as needed
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
  • 1/4 pound sharp Irish cheddar, shredded
  • About 1 cup diced scallions

For the roux

  • 1 cup unsalted butter
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour

For the meat filling

  • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
  • 1 1/2 pounds ground beef
  • 1 large onion, peeled and diced
  • 1 cup peas
  • 1 cup diced carrots
  • 1/8 cup minced garlic
  • 1 cup Guinness beer
  • 1 cup red wine 
  • 1 cup strong beef broth
  • 2 teaspoons dried basil
  • 2 teaspoons dried oregano
  • 2 teaspoons dried sage
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Place the potatoes in a medium saucepan and cover them with cold water. Place over high heat, cover, and bring to a boil. Once boiling, uncover, reduce the heat to a medium-low, and cook until fork tender, 10 to 15 minutes. Drain the potatoes, and return them to the saucepan. Mash the potatoes while adding butter, milk, salt and pepper, and continue to mash until smooth. Set aside.

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. 

To make the roux for thickening, melt the butter over medium heat, and whisk in the flour. Cook until the flour is absorbed, 2 to 3 minutes. Turn off the heat. (For more thickener, repeat this step with more ingredients.) 

Prepare the meat filling by placing 1 tablespoon vegetable oil into a 12-inch sauté pan, and heat over medium-high heat. Add the ground beef, and cook until browned and cooked throughout, about 3 minutes; drain off the fat. Add the onions, peas, carrots, and garlic, and sauté just until they begin to turn golden, 3 to 4 minutes. Add the beer, wine, beef broth, basil, oregano, and sage, and stir to combine. Bring to a rapid boil and whisk in the roux slowly to thicken to desired consistency; reduce the heat to low; add salt and pepper to taste, and cook 1 to 2 minutes.

Add the meat filling mixture and spread evenly into a 9- by 9-inch baking dish. Top with the mashed potatoes topping, starting around the edges to create a seal to prevent the mixture from bubbling up, and smooth with a spatula. Place on the middle rack of the oven. 

Bake for 25 minutes or just until the potatoes begin to brown. Remove to a cooling rack, and sprinkle with cheese and scallions; cool for at least 15 minutes before serving. 




Why is green worn on St. Patricks Day? (Click here to discover more.)

How did the faith come to Ireland?

What is the history of St. Patricks Day? (More info can be found here, here and here.)

How did the New York City St. Patricks Day Parade start?

Who was the real St. Patrick?

What does history teach us about St. Patrick? (Learn more here.)

What are some related myths and traditions?