A long time ago, the young man I once was arrived in Montreal, alone, in mid-winter, and when spring came, I went along to the St. Patrick’s Day parade thinking it would reconnect me with my roots.

Instead, I was a bit shocked by the caricatures - leprechauns, floppy green hats, and ginger wigs - which seemed to mock the Irish identity that could have cost me my life during the most violent years of the troubles in Northern Ireland.

The parade had little to do with the Saint Patrick's Day I knew in Belfast when I was a kid. Back then, to begin with, there wasn't even a parade, the pubs were closed and dad went to work as usual because March 17 wasn't a public holiday.

However, as Catholic kids, we got a day off school, and after breakfast, Mum pinned a little sprig of shamrock to the right lapel of each of our jackets, and then she walked the seven of us to mass in Saint Patrick’s Cathedral on Donegall Street. 

At communion, we all sang “Faith of our Fathers, burning bright/in spite of dungeon, fire, and sword...” – a reminder of who we were, where we’d come from, and what we’d suffered as a people.

This is how I remember March 17, and although lacking in hoopla, the memory is precious to me. Of course, since then, things have changed, big time. In Belfast and in other cities in the North, there are parades and events and if I was back home, I’m sure I’d join in.

In Montreal when friends wish me a “Happy Saint Patrick/ Joyeuse Saint Patrick,” I smile and say “Right back at you/Vous de même.”

However, I still hesitate about the parade: it’s crazy cold here in mid-March.

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