St. Patrick's Day in Ireland in 1959 was very different from the massive celebrations in the 21st century.
It is March 17, 1959. A nine-year-old girl is waiting for the Saint Patrick’s Day parade. Many others are waiting at the same corner. An icy wind blows up from the river. Her three brothers and three sisters are with her. The littlest one is in a go-cart. They left the baby at home.
The girl has her St. Patrick’s Day badge pinned onto her gabardine coat. She has a green bow in her short hair. They are all frozen in the cold. She pulls up her brothers’ knee socks. They are still in short trousers. The girl notices that most of the men have big bunches of shamrock pinned to their coats. There is no sign nor sound of the parade.
Rain begins to fall. Women pull their headscarves forward onto their foreheads, tightening them under their chins. They lean across their big prams to pull up the hoods. They tie their babies’ bonnets. The girl can see that many of them are ‘expectin’ again. So is her Mammy. The rain has turned to sleet.
She sees the woman who has six babies in Limbo, and none in her house. She sees the two spinsters from Parnell Square, and the man who won ‘Spot The Ball.’ She sees the woman who knits beautiful Aran jumpers, in the cinema, in the dark, every night. She sees the man who delivers their Far East. She sees the woman who is just back from her honeymoon in Ballybunion. They went there, on the train, for three days. The girl heard a woman saying that they ‘had to get married.’
Two nuns now appear. Her little sisters hide behind the girl’s gabardine. They peep out at these big black creatures, full of awe and terror. Still no sign of the parade.
She spots her pal, Maureen. Maureen told her that they always have a ‘tricolor dessert’ on St. Patrick’s Day. They eat green jelly, tinned oranges, and ice-cream. The girl told her mother this last night. But Mammy had the red jelly made. It was out in the scullery, on a high shelf, in case anyone drank it.
The girl sees the woman who is so posh that she gets her head scarfs dry-cleaned. Mary, her eighteen-year-old neighbor, told her this. Mary works in IMCO. Her granny said that a job in a dry cleaner would be a great place to meet a good husband because he’d have a job and be clean.
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Mary is waiting for the parade too. She is all excited, in spite of the cold. She’s going to a dance in The Roseland Ballroom tonight. Mary told the girl what the bishops said. They said that all the showbands could come back from England, just for St Patrick’s night. She has a new stiff slip to wear under her orange frock. Mary is humming a song she heard on Radio Luxembourg – 'The Station of the Stars.' It’s called ‘Teenager in Love.’
The girl asked her Mammy what a teenager was. “Something new,” Mammy said. Sister Dymphna’s choir had sung ‘Dochas Linn Naomh Phádraigh’ at ten o’clock Mass this morning.
She spots two Protestant girls coming out of Pasty Murray’s, eating ice-cream. She gazes at them, worrying about their souls. The nuns said that non-Catholics burn in Hell for all eternity.
The woman, whom everyone calls ‘The Saint,’ is standing outside Grenham’s Travel Agency. The girl doesn’t really understand why all the other mothers refer to this woman as a saint. She lives in a terrible house with a terrible husband and has fourteen children. Some of them are with her now.
Her little boys are looking at the big cardboard ocean liner in the window behind them. Cruise tickets are for sale within. Her Mammy told her that people bought their tickets for The Titanic in Grenhams. She sees ‘The Saint’ looking in the window at a picture of a beautiful young woman, in a swimsuit, lying on a beach far away.
‘The Saint’ moves her boys up to Broderick’s Bakery – away from this ‘occasion of sin.’ A famous man lives in Brodericks. The girl knows he writes books. How you could write books and bake bread at the same time is a bit of a mystery to her. It has gotten even colder.
She sees the man who was on an airplane once. An English football team was killed in an airplane crash last year, and Buddy Holly was killed last month. None of her family is ever going to go on an airplane.
Then, at last, they hear music in the distance. Athlone’s Brass Band lifts all their hearts. They even forget about the cold. New cars pass loads of them. A truck passes with people dressed-up on it. More cars. The boy scouts march by and her brothers shout at their classmates. Some tractors pass. Girls in Irish Dancing costumes followed by The Legion of Mary. More cars.
The girl doesn’t know any of the Pioneers. As more cars pass her brothers get giddy and run away. She decides it’s all over now anyway. People disperse. The girl takes her sisters and brothers back home. It’s time for their dinner and red jelly. They’ll be glad to get in out of the cold.
That girl was me.
What is your earliest St Patrick's Day memory? Tell us your story in the comments section, below.
* Originally published in 2016. Updated in 2022.