Half a million people will parade in Dublin today to celebrate St. Patrick's Day, but since when did Irish people celebrate this holiday?
March 17 has always meant a lot to the Irish diaspora, particularly those who themselves had left the country seeking a better life abroad. It was a day to celebrate Irishness, to reminisce about home, and to stand together in solidarity. Public gatherings, and particularly parades, have always been part of the annual celebration of Irishness.
In recent years, though, St. Patrick's Day has come home: The Irish, the actual Irish in Ireland, now celebrate St. Patrick's Day with as much enthusiasm as their cousins in the US and Britain. Half a million people will take to the streets of Dublin today to watch the parade.
In fact, it's not just St. Patrick's Day, it's now a week-long St. Patrick's Festival. Slick branding, float parades, giant green foam hands, buildings lit in green, fun fairs, stand-up comedy, and street performers: This is not how I remember things.
As a child in Belfast, Northern Ireland during the 1980s, St. Patrick's Day was little more than one of many days of religious observance. Church-goers went to church and wore shamrocks on their lapels, and Irish republicans paraded, much to the chagrin of pro-British unionists. My family was not religious so we didn't do much, though we did pin shamrocks to our jackets.
Later, but still a child, in the Republic of Ireland it was much the same, though the parades were less politically-charged state affairs.
In neither case did leprechaun hats, green beer, and the rest of the tidal wave of Paddywhackery feature. Of course, memory is notoriously faulty, but I think it's unlikely I mistook pious Mass-goers with hard-partying fun-seekers. Difficult as it is to believe, in Ireland St. Patrick's Day was once a day of temperance, with the only overindulgence being in sugary-sweets as a kind of cheating break from severe Lenten fasting.
Reportedly things weren't much different in rural Ireland. My colleague Cian Ginty grew-up in Mayo in the west of Ireland and the parades he remembers were not slick affairs.
"Tractors. That's my memory of St Patrick's Day. You get tractors, or at least used to in parades in the country down here," he says.
It's not that I'm a killjoy. If people want to have a New York-style parade, floats and all, through Dublin and then head to an Irish pub, authentic or otherwise, it's no skin off my nose. Headlines such as St. Paddy's Day FAILS: Beer, Booze And Barfing get on my nerves, but that's life. If I was to react to everything that irked me I'd have had an embolism years ago.
Nor am I a Catholic seeking a return to the true meaning of St. Patrick's Day. After all, what is the meaning of St. Patrick's Day? He didn't drive snakes out of Ireland and his explanation of the Trinity using a shamrock is a romantic fabrication from the eighteenth century. Patrick the man, if his confession is anything to go by, cut a pious and stern figure, arguably closer to Protestant Rev. Ian Paisley than the green-festooned and cheery miter-wearing bishop that we Irish tend to portray him as.
Bernie Whelan, second-generation Irish living in Britain, says she remembers when St. Patrick's Day had real meaning to the London Irish. Today, though, the Irish are just like everyone else.
"The Irish community in North London has dispersed. I was an advice worker in the London Irish women's center in Stoke Newington until it closed. To be honest couldn't justify funding any more," she says.
As Ireland has modernized, the ongoing economic crisis notwithstanding, the idea of a unique Irish ethnicity has come to look increasingly threadbare. There is, no doubt, such a thing as Irish culture, but Ireland is also part of the modern, developed world and shares a universal culture with the rest of Europe, the US, and other countries. Irish identity, at least the version long defined by political oppression and poverty makes less sense than ever.
This hasn't stopped the marketing, though. In fact, the absence of bombs and bullets makes Irishness much easier to sell, abroad and at home, even if the beer-soaked mawkishness is now harder to explain. And so, on St. Patrick's Day we're told that everyone has a bit of Irish in them. Actually, they don't. Don't take it as an insult, it's just a fact. Besides, despite the attempt to turn Irishness into some kind of universal character trait, it's really just a nationality and, like all nationalities, means less than we tend to ascribe to it.
One thing, though: It's Paddy's day, not Patty. Patty is a female name, and don't start on the Patrick doesn't contain the letter "d". The Irish-language (Gaelic to you) Pádraic does.
Celebrate St. Patrick's Day if you like. Have fun. Just don't for a moment think it's authentic.
As for me? I'll be celebrating that we're just like everyone else.