I’m a bit ambivalent about St. Patrick’s Day. What is it about March 17 that renders so many people Irish or some version of it, that I don’t recall from living the first twenty-seven years of my life in Ireland?
Everywhere I turn, there are people bragging about their Irish-ness, balancing plastic green bowler hats on their heads and wearing T-shirts emblazoned with a command for everyone to kiss them. Why? Simple. Because they are Irish.
Even politicians are suddenly Irish – usually the American kind and definitely not those from a distinct group in Northern Ireland, where I’m from. It amuses me to imagine how many frazzled interns there must be in these United States, tasked by politicians keen on “the Irish vote,” with finding some verifiable, however microscopic, proof of their Irish heritage.
With vast quantities of green beer flowing to strains of “Danny Boy” and all those perfectly-formed ringlets bouncing heavily on the heads of Irish dancers, I’m beginning to wonder if perhaps I had been absent on St. Patrick’s Day in Ireland. How could I have grown up down the road from Mount Slemish, where a young Saint Patrick tended his sheep, and missed all these shenanigans?
Incidentally, along with a bunch of fresh-faced girls from school, I went to Irish Dancing lessons every week at the Protestant Hall on Railway Street in Antrim, and not one of us had either the ringlets or the very straight backs and long legs of all those Riverdancers first spotted almost twenty years ago on the Eurovision Song Contest.
I have long since forgotten the name of our Irish Dancing teacher and how to do a slip-jig, but I saved all my medals in the red box that held my first Timex watch, and I even brought my lovely dancing costume all the way to America with me.
It hangs in the back of a closet, rather dusty and maybe a bit too reminiscent of Miss Havisham’s wedding dress. Dare I ask my daughter to humor me and try it on? Maybe for St. Patrick’s Day . . .
Then there’s the corned beef and cabbage. With hand on my heart, I can tell you we never had corned beef in our house. There was always the best of sirloin from Stewart’s Butchers, a place with saffron colored sawdust on the floor. I remember tracing lop-sided figures of eight in it with the toes of the leather brogues I wore to school. An imaginative child, I pretended I was cutting through ice on the blades of Harriet’s skates as she spun around a frozen pond in "Tom’s Midnight Garden," a much-loved book that had even made it to a BBC television series.
The young red-faced butchers, in their navy and white striped aprons all smeared with blood and bits of raw beef, looked a bit menacing, especially while sharpening their knives as I ordered a pound of minced beef. As for cabbage, I still associate it with the overcooked vegetables, lumpy custard, and tapioca served for school dinners. Mind you, as my mother will no doubt remind me, when fried up with a bit of good bacon from Golden’s, the wee shop, cabbage was hard to beat, turnip too. But neither cabbage nor turnip had anything to do with St. Patrick. I daresay corned beef and cabbage would have been no more than a coincidence on St. Patrick’s Day four decades ago in Northern Ireland.
And, the shamrocks. For starters, I don’t remember Pat the barman in the Crown Bar in Belfast – where I had manys the ploughman's platter with my college friend, Ruth – taking the time to trace a shamrock on the head of a pint of Guinness for us. Nor do I remember green shamrocks or Celtic knots tattooed with pride on young shoulders; rather, they were carved into the grey headstones that sprouted from old and overgrown graveyards outside country churches.
In spite of Sunday School and sermons from the pulpit, I somehow missed the bit about St. Patrick driving all the snakes out of Ireland, although the story has since crossed my mind on those rare occasions when real snakes have slithered across my path on a hike through the Sonoran desert. Truth be told, I have found these lowly creatures much less poisonous than the human variety.
Now wasn’t St. Patrick very clever to have found in nature a perfect symbol for Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, to help him spread The Word? This was how I learned about the Holy Trinity in Sunday School, and, I always think about it when I recall those delicate shamrocks wilting in the buttonholes of suits worn by Catholic men going to mass on St. Patrick’s Day. Back then, it seemed that most Protestants either “took no notice” of the holiday or characterized it as something reserved for those “on the other side.” Ironic, given the young saint’s passion for spreading Christianity.
By the time I was living and studying in Belfast, St. Patrick’s Day had become a good excuse for an extended pub crawl with a motley crew of art students, engineers, teachers, and male nurses. I recall one such March, when a bunch of us piled in a taxi bound for The Wayside Halt, a pub on the Ballymena line. It stands almost stoic, a nondescript bar on the edge of the dual carriageway between Antrim and Ballymena. It is the kind of place that wouldn’t merit a second look, unremarkable except for those who knew of the horror that had visited on May 24, 1974.