The View From Here – A traditional St. Patrick’s Day in Ireland had a spirit of commemoration as well as celebration

Tom Henihan

March 17 is St. Patrick’s Day, a day when those who identify themselves as Irish celebrate their heritage.

Identifying one’s self as Irish is not mandatory to joining in the celebration because as the song says, “You don’t have to be Irish to be Irish,” is especially true on Saint Patrick’s Day.

In many parts of North America, celebrating Saint Patrick’s Day usually means a lavish parade, a day of music, dancing and of course, a few pints of Guinness.

Every country has its national day when people consciously celebrate their identity and express their cultural essence in their unique music, dance and food.

It is a day when people remember the trials and celebrate the achievements of their particular country or ancestral homeland.

Apart from being a public holiday in Ireland, Northern Ireland and Newfoundland and Labrador, St. Patrick’s Day has achieved a singular currency, being demonstratively celebrated all over the world.

The principal reason for St. Patrick’s Day cutting such a wide swath is that the Irish diaspora is one of the largest and most widely disseminated and its literature, theatre and music has a universal appeal.

On the downside, the Irish are the subject of some indelible stereotypes, although, to be fair, we may have to carry a good portion of the blame for that ourselves.

However, contrary to stereotypes, Saint Patrick’s Day in Ireland has traditionally been anything but a day of booze, music and excess.

At the time I left Ireland in the 1980’s, Saint Patrick’s Day had no resemblance to the North American version in New York, Boston or Chicago with green beer, pageantry and excess.

St. Patrick’s Day in Ireland at that time was primarily a religious holiday. Like Sunday, the pubs opened for two hours in the morning and again in the afternoon from 4pm to 10pm, hardly the big partying day many might imagine.

As St. Patrick’s Day is a church holiday in Ireland, the day usually began with families attending Mass. People wore a sprig of shamrock, or Irish emblems such a gold harp on their lapel.

After Mass, children were taken to see the parade , which was as elaborate and entertaining as it was anywhere else, with floats and marching bands visiting from different countries. From an entertainment perspective, St. Patrick’s Day focused solely on children.

When the parade was over, people went home for the equivalent of Sunday dinner, and later in the afternoon, the adults went for a few pints at the pub.

Being March 17, it always rained on St. Patrick’s Day, which is appropriate as there are few things more Irish than the rain.

The rain also permeated the spirit and roused our race memory, contributing to a shared introspection, a collective, silent summation of a people who had prevailed over a difficult history of colonization, war and famine.

While we certainly celebrated and enjoyed the day, with food, drink, family and friends, it was an atypical day of moderation, because on a certain strata, St. Patrick’s Day functioned in many ways as an Irish Remembrance Day.

A generation of unprecedented prosperity from the early 1990’s to 2008 had a radical influence on Irish culture bringing about radical changes in values, expectations and way of life.

Ireland was also demographically a young country and those young people saw themselves as worldly and less insular.

Modernity and worldliness served as an act of defiance against a narrow and somewhat oppressive past and in many ways that was a healthy and necessary development.

However, it also meant that we forfeited cultural depth to extend with many young Irish people emulating North Americans, even incorporating American turns of phrase in every day speech, a development that is usually indicative of cultural decline.

Today, St. Patrick’s Day in Ireland is green beer, face paint, oversized leprechaun hats and excessive behavior.

There is nothing wrong with moving the emphasis more towards celebration rather than commemoration, but is it necessary to personify every stereotype and cliché.

Is it necessary to engage in self-parody and vulgar excess?

That kind of exhibitionism is understandable for the Irish in Canada, U.S. or Australia; there is a sense of distance, separation and nostalgia, that in some way justifies a more overt display of Irish heritage.

In Ireland on St. Patrick’s Day we certainly don’t need green beer; believe me the place is already green enough.


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