St. Patrick’s Day – the Desert of the Real?

St. Patrick’s Day is not the best place to look for genuine Irish culture but then again it’s hard to tell where is…

I can only speak for myself – though I suspect there are many who think the same: as an Irishman, St. Patrick’s Day is a strange holiday. A commercialised holiday not quite so dubious as Hallowe’en and a religious feast day lacking the stern imperatives of Easter, St. Patrick’s Day is a much trumpeted celebration whose significance runs skin deep. Christmas has a far greater emotional pull for the vast majority of Irish people – as much for the non-believers as for the devout – but Christmas isn’t exclusively ours. And the Irish love being unique, or at least thinking they are. So we have a national holiday that we make quite a big deal out of but which within a week has faded from memory. In the days when much of the Irish nation was wedded to its rosaries, the holiday presented an unusual challenge, as it invariably fell during Lent. While other Catholic countries got their pre-austerity bacchanalias out of the way at Mardi Gras, the Irish were studying the small print to see if they could sneak one in on the 17th of March. I remember hearing in my youth, in a year when St. Patrick’s Day fell on a Sunday, a gentleman reason on a radio phone-in that the usual Sunday pub licensing restrictions should not apply because “denying an Irishman a drink on St. Patrick’s Day would be like taking a sandwich off a Biafran”- a masterpiece of dual offensiveness, if ever there was one. The implicit linking of alcohol with the Irish and their national holiday is controvertible (according to the Gill & Macmillan Encyclopaedia of Ireland, 52% of Irish adults were teetotal as recently as 1968 – a figure borne out in my own family) but it chimes with much else surrounding St. Patrick’s Day, which is not quite the holiday rooted in time immemorial, but which says a lot about the Irish’s complicated relationship with culture and “authenticity.”

Though the Irish had long celebrated their national saint’s day, its modern manifestation took root outside the country, among Irish immigrants in Boston. The first recorded date of a St. Patrick’s Day parade is in that city in 1759, making it older than the United States itself. It was not until the 20th century that the parade caught on back in the old country. It makes sense that this should be the case – a celebration of the sort would provide a far more useful rallying point to emigrants in a distant land than those at home. Even today the day seems to mean more to Irish-Americans than it does to their cousins on the emerald isle, a difference symbolised by the traditional Irish-American St. Patrick’s Day dish. Corned beef and cabbage is practically non-existent in Ireland and came about in the New World only by historical accident; unable to find the shoulder of pork used to make their national dish, bacon and cabbage, 19th century Irish immigrants turned to the salt beef sold by their Jewish neighbours as a substitute.

St. Patrick’s Day has turned into a de facto public holiday in the US that extends far beyond those of Irish ancestry and, not surprisingly, it is big business. Many in the old country feel ambiguous about the American celebration of St. Patrick’s Day, with some dismissing it as Paddywackery, while the ban on LGBT Irish men and women from the New York parade has long been criticised, most recently by former Irish president Mary McAleese and current Foreign Minister Éamonn Gilmore. The parade’s guidelines also make cringeworthy reading, including its juvenile stipulation that the only political banner allowed is one that says “England, get out of Ireland”. The New York parade, the world’s longest-running St. Patrick’s Day procession, is a staid, conservative affair and a bit of an anachronism and, you suspect, is not terribly representative of contemporary Irish America, never mind Irish people elsewhere in the world. But, the uglier policies of the parade aside, it’s a little unfair for Irish people to sneer at Irish-Americans for their celebration of a day that is as much theirs as ours. Irish America is also much different from Ireland itself – its quirks, pre-occupations and symbols have long ago taken their own course and might often look strange from a native Irish perspective but who are we to say it’s not “authentically Irish” when much of what we imagine to be so is a very recent construct?

A select few countries forged their nationhood centuries ago, mainly through travelling across the globe and stealing other peoples’ lands. The rest had to wait till the 19th century for nationalism to meld institutions, language, symbols, and, regrettably sometimes race, into the modern idea known as the ‘nation’. As well as a repackaged national holiday, Ireland got its flag from the New World. Though it is clearly modelled on the tricolours of both France and Italy, the green, white and orange was devised by an Irish-Canadian Thomas Francis Meaghar, one of the leaders of the failed 1848 Young Irelander revolution. (Two decades later, Boston-based Fenians would rather ungratefully repay Canada by launching an invasion to try and strike a blow against the British Empire). The flag represents Ireland’s Catholic population (green), its Protestant minority (orange) and peace between them (white); that the colours have so often morphed in the minds and mouths of Irish people into green, white and “gold” says a lot about the attitude of some of them towards inclusion.

The Irish like to say they punch above their weight in the world, which, culturally, is certainly true. The reason, though, is not to do with any innate tendency to wit or literary brilliance (another myth the Irish love to propagate about themselves) but simply because we speak English. Our language gives us access to cultural markets that other small European countries like Slovenia, the Czech Republic or Finland don’t have; our geographical proximity to Europe and our historical relationship with the US mean we have an advantage over more distant English-speaking countries such as New Zealand, Australia and South Africa. All this because of a cultural catastrophe – the loss of the Irish language. The very same historical development that has made most Irish people as damnably monoglot as the rest of the English-speaking world has opened many doors to us. The Irish language is still clasped as a talisman of cultural authenticity even by those that cannot speak it, especially when they find themselves viewed as just another English-speaker when they travel. The truth is, though it is a vital key to understanding Irish culture, Gaelic is no barometer of “real Irishness.” (To be fair, that idea is these days more likely to be propagated by those that don’t speak it but wish they did than by those that do).

People of all nations are able to gauge authenticity in their own culture, even if they may not always know why or how – to paraphrase a certain US Supreme Court judge, “they know it when they see it.” That said, the judgement can be fallible. “The Fields of Athenry” passes as traditional Irish song among most Irish people these days and is probably the most widely sung at sporting events, among other gatherings. Few Irish people know it dates from only 1978, so seamless a copy of traditional Irish balladry it is. Of course, this doesn’t mean the song is “inauthentic” as such – it simply means establishing an absolute standard for the term is no easy thing. There are manifestations of Irishness that rear their heads around St. Patrick’s Day that people from the old sod find irritating, embarrassing or unrecognisable in real life. But all nations are prone to be boiled down to a very superficial set of symbols by casual observers from abroad. Those associated with St. Patrick’s Day are for the most part harmless, and even those that aren’t the Irish do little to allay with the drunkenness that has come to blight the day in Dublin (as well as New York). But Ireland, even from the perspective of someone that knows it well, rarely comes across as completely authentic – time and social changes have eroded far too many things of old. They themselves were probably in their own time accused of being ersatz. Let’s not forget that St. Patrick himself, a Roman Briton who first came to Ireland as a slave, fails the authenticity test at its most fundamental level. Nobody’s perfect…

Happy St. Patrick’s Day. Here’s The Pogues, who at the height of their success, were accused of being an ‘abortion of Irish music’. You’d be right to scratch your head:

Originally published by France 24.