Tuesday 17 March 2015

St. Patrick's Day in Ireland

Growing up in an Irish family in Missouri, St. Patrick’s Day combined all the things I loved most about holidays, without any of the negatives. Big-league holidays like Christmas, Thanksgiving and Halloween only arrived after weeks of television commercials and yard decorations, until the day itself could be a serious anti-climax.

St. Patrick’s Day, though, meant gathering with cousins, marching in a parade, waving to crowds, eating great food and just socialising. It was a genuine family holiday.

Here, St. Patrick’s is the day for an annual town parade, and The Girl and I went to the same one we do every year. It's a lot of fun, and I'm pleased my soon-to-be teenager is not too old for a parade. The local girls’ Irish dancing club Riverdanced down the lane, the annual bagpipers marched behind them, the rugby and boxing clubs demonstrated their techniques before the Lord Mayor and other village dignitaries. A local girl sang a genuinely good version of a Taylor Swift song in a Bog-Irish accent, mumbling the less family-friendly words.

When you think about it, though, the global St. Patrick's Day celebrations feel a bit strange; people of many backgrounds, around the world, celebrate an ethnic group most don’t belong to, a foreign country most have never visited, and a Catholic saint who probably would be flummoxed by the whole shebang. Of course, many Americans are Irish, but a lot more are English, German or Mexican, and they don’t get such unanimous celebrations. And while most descendants of the Irish diaspora have embraced and laugh along with the stereotypes, it’s hard to imagine most ethnic minorities doing the same.

 Perhaps we Irish have that right balance: our past is sufficiently tragic to ground the celebrations in something substantial, while our Ireland has always been neutral enough that we don't have the historical baggage of, say, British or Germans. And the Irish -- both residents of this island and their cousins around the world -- are comfortable and mainstream enough to laugh along with once-malevolent stereotypes.

When I moved to Ireland ten years ago, I discovered that St. Patrick’s Day celebrations were new here; American parades had begun in the 1700s, while Ireland held its first in the 1970s. Like Halloween, it began as a Celtic festival, left with emigrants to North America, changed into a massive party, and has been recently re-imported to this country.

 The image of Ireland as a mystical Brigadoon of thatch roofs and village pubs holds a unique grip on the hearts of many Americans. The Irish even have a word for it --- "Oirish," which is to Irish as "Americana" is to American. The recent protests over water charges were Irish. The Quiet Man was Oirish.

Some modern Irish chafe at the leprechaun stereotypes, of course – we get the same internet and media here as many Americans, and young people's culture here is becoming as Hollywoodised as that of Americans. They feel about other countries’ St. Patrick’s Day celebrations as Americans might feel if Albanians honoured our country with an annual “America Day” procession of cowboy hats, machine guns and surfboards.

Seeing it from both sides, though, I can defend the American image of Ireland to my neighbours here; that sense of common heritage kept Irish-American families together through difficult times, and gave them an ideal of community to aspire to -- one that might be very useful to us in the years ahead

The bucolic image carried a lot of truth; as recently as the 1970s many areas here lacked electricity or central water, and people got about by horses and carts. Ireland has bits and pieces of the modern world stuck on to the old; modern trucks rolling over medieval stone bridges, a modern grocery next to a ruined medieval abbey, our neighbours drive horse-carts past our house, and a thatched-roof pub near our house with a sattelite dish.

That's the biggest difference: In my native USA, most of the people you see driving around and watching television have been doing it all their lives. Here, older people live in the modern world but grew up in a much more traditional and self-sufficient one, and some still carry that world around inside them. I'm slowly learning that way of life as an adult, and just like my forbears decades ago, when I leave this island, I'll carry a bit of that world around with me.


Anubis Bard said...

Happy St. Patrick's Day!

Unknown said...

Well that explains alot. I went out to the factory and said Happy St Patricks day to our resident Irishman and he said Oh, that's just American. I didnt understand, so left it. You are right, its celebrated here in Oz and its on our calendars so we dont miss it yet we dont do this for any other country.
I never thought about it.

Fr Brian said...

Thanks Brian for this. A good summary of the Irish nature and the differences between the natives and us whose ancestors left. Yet how we share characteristics such as the ability to laugh at ourselves. May you carry with you always what you have learned in our ancestral home! Happy belated St. Patrick's day to you and yours. Fr Brian