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A Dublin St. Patrick’s bah humbug

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Hundreds of thousands took to the streets of Dublin on Saturday to watch the St. Patrick’s Day parade 
Like a lot of people here, I don't get excited by St Patrick's Day anymore. And this one was no different.

Myself and my better half put on our rain gear (it's the law here -- it always rains on St. Patrick's Day) and went for a long walk up the beach and around the fishing harbor near where we live.  We were not wearing anything green and we didn't have a leaf of shamrock between us -- and it didn't feel like we were missing something.    

The day before, the harbor had been full of tourists -- it's close to Dublin -- including a lot of American teenagers with their leprechaun hats and orange beards, and some even in the full outfit with shiny green jackets and trousers. Most likely they were from the marching bands that come over from U.S. colleges every year.    

On the big day, as I said, we walked around the harbor and down the pier in peace with not a tourist in sight, which was kind of a holiday in itself.  At the same time the kids from the American college bands would have been marching down O'Connell Street, delighting the crowds as they tooted and quick-stepped and the cheerleaders high kicked and shivered in the cold wind.

It was different when our own kids were small, of course.  Then it was into town early to get a good position for the parade.  We even had a mini stepladder in case we could not get a spot near the front.

We always had something green on (my sons wore their Irish soccer tops and my daughter her special green ribbons) as well as our St. Patrick's Day badges and big sprigs of shamrock.  We drew the line at flags and leprechaun hats -- even the kids knew they were just for the tourists.

It's still mainly a day for kids here and I have no problem with that.  But the rest of it I can leave -- the drunk teenagers, the urinating in public, the throwing up, the abandoned half eaten fast food and the canned Irish traditional music blaring out of loudspeakers over the doors of the bars.

And I no longer want to see adults who should know better outside pubs in the afternoon with pint glasses in their hands singing “The Fields of Athenry” and waving giant shamrocks made in China.

By nighttime, when the kids are home in bed, some parts of Dublin on St. Patrick's night too often resemble that Urban Outfitters t-shirt.  Remember that clichés and stereotypes come into existence because they reflect a reality.

It may not be the whole reality but there's more than a grain of truth there, which is why some people here get angry about how we are portrayed.

Not me, however.  I've been down Temple Bar on St. Patrick's night and New Year's Eve and other big nights often enough to have lost all my political correctness about the Irish.  

Maybe I'm getting old and grumpy and maybe I've seen it all too often before. But it seems to me these days that St. Patrick's Day is now a completely manufactured event, a group hysteria of forced gaiety fueled by booze.  It's a celebration that no longer has any idea what it's actually celebrating.  

These days St. Patrick's Day seems to have little to do with being Irish. It certainly does not reflect the Irish people I know, the way they live, what they think, who they are, how they see themselves, even how they enjoy themselves.  Most of them, if they told the truth, would admit that it's almost an embarrassment.

Talking of things that are embarrassing, are you okay with the idea of turning Niagara Falls green for the day?  And the Leaning Tower of Pisa?  And all the other international landmarks that were turned green this year?

Doesn't anyone have any sense of proportionality anymore?  We're a tiny island hanging off the western edge of Europe. Why is Irishness being inflicted on countries around the globe?

Well, I hear you say, it's because there are Irish people everywhere and wherever we are they love us and they love our culture and they want to be Irish for a day.  

And it's not just the present generation of emigrants. We've been emigrating for so long and in such numbers that our descendants now make up significant parts of the populations in many countries, particularly in Britain, the U.S., Canada and Australia.  That's why in so many cities around the globe last weekend bands were marching and people were wearing silly hats, singing “Irish” songs and drinking too much.

For the descendants of Irish emigrants -- and the Irish diaspora has been estimated at 70 million people -- it's a chance to proclaim their ancestry and identity.  For everyone else, it's a reason to party, a legitimate excuse for consuming more beers than they can handle.  

There is another side to it, of course, which although not entirely cynical is not completely innocent either.   It's the way we exploit St. Patrick's Day for all we can get out of it.  

So hotel prices here go up for the holiday and pubs push up the price of the traditional pint of the black stuff, and restaurants shamelessly churn out bowls of Irish stew and plates of bacon and cabbage that they would not dare put on their menus for the rest of the year.  (Some places here even serve up corned beef, even though 95% of Irish people today have no idea what it is.)  

St. Patrick's Day is big business.  I saw some guy from the Irish Hotels organization on TV last weekend saying this year it was giving a 50 million boost to the country.  He said that, despite the bad publicity about our economy, Ireland was "trending" in international tourism.  

Don't you love the jargon?  He didn't say that the recession has pushed our prices down and that is helping to boost our tourism, but that's probably what he meant.

Abroad on St. Patrick's Day it's the same story.  Our government ministers fan across the globe, and for them
it's not so much a celebration of being Irish as a hard sell trade mission.

They don't even try to hide it anymore. We'll give you Bono and the craic, you send us industries to create jobs, that's the deal.  We'll even throw in a few pints and loads of diddley eye music as well for free.      
There's no end to the hype and the riverdancing.  The international phenomenon that St. Patrick's Day has become in 2012 is quite extraordinary.  

On radio here a few days ago I heard an Irish ballad group being interviewed from some remote city in China (I can't spell it and you've never heard of it) where they were tuning up for a huge Irish celebration on the big day.   Irish dancing is wildly popular in Ukraine.   And in Russia Irish traditional music is huge.

By chance as I was flicking through satellite channels on TV a few nights back I paused at RT (the English language Russian Television station) to see a pub scene that looked like somewhere in Woodside on Paddy's night with Guinness, green hats and a full on party in progress, except that it was downtown Moscow. And from the accents it was clear that they were all Russian.

What is it with these people?  I reckon the Irish diaspora in Russia and Ukraine is miniscule.

Russian and Ukrainian folk music and dancing are wonderful, so what's the big attraction of the Irish version?  I'd bet that many of the Russians letting off steam in that “Irish” bar in Moscow on Paddy's night know little if anything about Ireland, including exactly where it is, and they would find it hard to name an Irish person other than Bono.  

There is one simple explanation to all this and it goes back to the Urban Outfitters slogans.  St. Patrick's Day, whether we like it or not, has now become a kind of international symbol for an “Irish” party, complete with silly hats and buckets of beer.

It's a free pass for people everywhere to lose their worries and inhibitions for a day of freedom during which everybody can get a bit mad, a bit drunk and let their hair down.  So people across the globe, including people who really don't know much about either Ireland or St. Patrick, go for it.

In the British, American, Canadian and Australian contexts, it's more connected with reality because the diaspora factor is genuinely important.  This is particularly true in the case of the U.S., despite all the green beer, Kiss Me I'm Irish t-shirts and boozed up leprechauns in “Irish” bars on the big day.  

Writing in The Irish Times last week, Professor James Flannery from Emory University in Atlanta made some interesting points about the Paddy's Day phenomenon in the U.S. and the way it has spread much wider than the traditional Irish communities there.  

He explained that for 19th century post-Famine Irish emigrants, the St. Patrick's Day celebration became a public way for them to claim their place as American citizens in the face of widespread prejudice and discrimination.

The Irish were the first ethnic group to achieve success in the US, Flannery wrote, and for the Italians, Jews, Poles, etc. who followed they became a model of what could be achieved.  For that reason St. Patrick's Day became a holiday that meant something to all the immigrant groups.  

Over time it became a holiday that honored all the diverse peoples who contributed to America and it was something that everyone could celebrate.

In that sense, as Flannery explains it, there are valid, historical reasons why St. Patrick's Day was embraced by immigrant groups other than the Irish.  It symbolized the acceptance of the rights of all immigrant groups and acknowledged their roles in building America.  

To put it another way, it explains why everyone in America wants to be Irish for the day, and why anyone can wear a Kiss Me I'm Irish t-shirt.

These days probably very few of the non-Irish in the U.S. understand why St. Patrick's Day seems to belong to everyone.  They just enjoy it.  And that's okay.

In a strange way, it all probably means more to non-Irish people these days, in America and elsewhere, than it does to the Irish here in the homeland.  And that's okay too.

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