My recollection of Saint Patrick’s Day as a boy growing up in Dublin is that, being a “holy day” and therefore one upon which all commercial and civil establishments except the public establishments (pubs) were closed, it was a brief respite from the remorseless tedium and relentless brutality of school life.
And apart from the day being like a Sunday with its grim concomitant of best behavior and attendance at Mass, the only real evidence of it being Saint Patrick’s Day (abbreviated to “Patrick’s Day” or even “Paddy’s Day” by those irreverent Irish who disdainfully wished to expunge its devotional origins) was scant: a few scraps of wilting green weed in the lapels of the patriotic and righteous, invariably “worn” alongside the Fainne (a gold ring pin signifying that the wearer is an Irish speaker although in practice probably has ‘command’ of only a few scattered phrases) and the Pioneer (sic) heart shaped badge (indicating non-consumption of alcohol).
The appearance of this formidably declarative panoply of allegiance was usually the preserve of clergymen, civil servants and the implacably upright. Cynics speculated or even noticed that, as the day wore on, the tired sprig of green sadly slipped its moorings and fell to the street to be trodden on by a crunching boot although the Fainne might remain where it was provided no one took it as an invitation to say anything more than ‘Dia Dhuit’ (which although the Gaelic equivalent of ‘Hello’ literally means ‘May God be with you’, the standard reply being ‘Dia agus Muire aghuit’: ‘May God and Our Lady be with you’). The problematic Pioneer badge, however, was sometimes discreetly hidden on the inside of the lapel as the invitation to a pint or ten of stout became something no sane man could refuse. Hypocrisy may only be worn on your sleeve.
“Hypocrisy,” though, is too narrow and facile an expression, too modern in its moral and judgmental connotations, to be strictly applicable to forms of behavior which may appear to be baffling, confusing or if a slant can’t be had on it, acceptably or even terribly amusing. As G. K Chesterton wrote
“When God made the Irish he made them very mad,
For all their wars are happy and all their songs are sad.”
Put crudely, the modern Irish character reveals two contradictory historical impulses. On the one hand there is the atavistic tribal paganism of the Celtic tradition and on the other, there is the oppressive and puritanical missionary Christianity which expresses itself in a dour sanctimoniousness. Both of these issue in a mesomorph of diminished gentility and doubtful moral principles called the modern Irish man or woman the accomplishment of which anthropological synthesis we celebrate on Saint Patrick’s Day.
Saint Patrick was himself an actual historical character. He left behind a few works which do not, however, confirm any of the apocryphal tales which have subsequently been woven around him. He was born in the early fourth century, probably to a wealthy British family in Wales, and was seized by a marauding tribe of plundering Celts who brought him back to Ireland and dispatched him into slavery in which condition he remained for a number of years. He then turned his hand to converting the barbarians and although Christianity almost certainly existed in Ireland before he came he has traditionally been held to be solely responsible for its introduction.
His missionary methods are legendary. He is said to have banished all the snakes from the island. He is also said to have explained the Mystery of the Blessed Trinity to the Druids of Tara by producing a (three-leafed) shamrock, in this way demonstrating the logical feasibility of three manifestations existing in one identity. They appear to have been swayed by this argument, “stopped worshipping idols and unclean things” and subsequently (and perhaps tragically) embraced Christianity. Satisfied that his mission was accomplished, he returned to England where he died on March 17 460 AD.
It is this day that was first celebrated on the streets of New York in 1762 when Irish soldiers serving in the English military demonstrated a reconnection with their Irish roots. As the Irish fought stereotypes to find acceptance in America and gradually became assimilated into American society so did they grow in political importance. This culminated in President Truman attending the Saint Patrick’s Day parade in New York in 1948. The Irish had finally made it!
Until the 1950’s Saint Patrick’s Day in Ireland remained a “Holy Day” a day of abstinence and prayer when the pubs were closed, drinking was frowned upon and the “wearing of the green” and the shamrock were practically unheard of. Then “the yanks” began to arrived back home on holiday in cars the size of aircraft carriers whispering along the gray cobbled streets of Dublin, talking in heavy American accents, wearing exotic clothes and giving us small change for sweets. Ireland’s sackcloth image gradually began to change and we began to emulate the Irishness which the emigrants themselves were importing back into the country. The locals got off their knees and found a cause to celebrate: themselves.
I recall as a boy that there was a parade of sorts through the centre of town, setting off from some obscure location to wend its way raggedly towards and along O’Connell street in Dublin. Anyone who took the trouble to take the bus into town to see this sluggishly moving exhibition discovered that every bus route going that direction had as its destination ‘An Lar’ which turned out to be a generic reference to any place, so that you could be deposited anywhere within a two-mile radius of your actual destination, in this case, O’Connell street.
For me and my friends the Parade was only an excuse for loafing around prior to the snooker halls being opened and seeing the girlfriend (“the mot”) whom you may have kissed once in the back row of a dusty cinema with a yellow screen showing something gripping (!) like “The Beast of the Five Fingers”.
Dublin was the major point of congregation on Patrick’s Day for ‘Culchies’, a derogatory term of disputed etymology which signified those who came from the country or those who, in the words of one of my more articulate friends, were “blown off the side of a mountain.” We sniggered at their dress (down-at-heel brogues, herringbone jackets with leather patches at the elbows, thick shawls and flat caps) disposition (bony arses to the wind, ruddy faces to the sky) and accents (sing-song incomprehensible) although in terms of generations we can’t have been far off being culchies ourselves.
We slouched among them in the fitful rain showers, often whipped by an easterly gale hopping off the Liffey and could almost have touched the low scudding clouds of brisk early spring. And we laughed as the collective speech patterns of the small multitude of bemused country visitors sounded to us like a remote puffin colony in a wildlife documentary.
Then we heard the drums of the Artane Boy’s Band (its members drawn from a notoriously feared reform school) which, three rows of drummers deep (by implication dismissing any foolish traditional notion that trombones should be at the front), crashingly led the uproar of the following battalions of brass in a thumping medley of patriotic marches.
Such was the stirring cacophony of this strident drama that anything which followed was bound to be deliriously outdone. True enough, along came a few moping floats ostensibly but ineptly advertising either staple food or public transport (a papier mache milk bottle idling along, a giant breadloaf with a young couple ridiculously waving on top, a steam train with cotton wool for smoke) interspersed with a few pipe bands including a girls’ pipe band whose sturdy legs were raw with the cold. This drew a few laughs from the boys. And as the pipes and drums and brass receded in the distance up ahead and a few cranks or drunks drew up the rear it was just about all over, I suspect to everyone’s relief.
Most of the adults, as well as some gougers chancing their arm, seemed to disperse towards the pubs, many of them to get oiled enough in preparation for the GAA (Gaelic Athletic Association) hurling or football match to be played in Croagh Park in the afternoon. We turned away in resignation: nothing new there. Then we drifted away ourselves, back to the pool halls, the girlfriends, back to the mid-day dinners of steaming potatoes and corned beef and cabbage before gathering around lamp-posts later on to stamp around and talk about the day and its already evaporating impressions. The gathering gloom of nightfall brought with it grim tidings of the cruel gulag incarceration at the hands of almost uniformly awful sadists that was to be our lot the following day. Patrick’s Day had come to a close.
What has now universally become known as ‘the craic’, an expression which suggests a truculent determination to pursue, at whatever cost, riotous hilarity, is an expression which has become almost synonymous with Patrick’s Day festivities. Such is the intensity of the pursuit of ‘the craic’ that in many places Patrick’s Day has become Patrick’s weekend or even Patrick’s week.