Irish author Ciara Geraghty takes a look at the colourful annual event that is St Patrick’s Day…
Once upon a time, a young fella by the name of Paddy was abducted from his home in Wales by raiders and brought to Ireland where he was sold as a slave. He eventually gave his captors the slip, managed to get safe passage back to Wales, became a priest and, in a sort of a Stockholm syndrome twist, decided to return to Ireland to spread the word of God and of course, do a bit of a Rentokil job on the snakes. The place was only falling down with snakes at the time…
The day we call St. Patrick’s Day – the 17th of March – is reputedly the day the man died, in 461, aged 74. That’s the kind of stuff we like to celebrate in Ireland. We’re a maudlin bunch.
Take the fishermen for instance. Most of them don’t know how to swim. It’s considered bad luck. In the olden days, they wore Aran sweaters which were made with family weaves, designed to help the family of a drowned fisherman identify him. Can you imagine that conversation? ‘Put this on you Seanie, and at least we’ll know we’re burying one of our own when you wash up on the shore.’
Mawkish. That’s the nature of us.
Still, we have to take what we can get since there’s not a lot to celebrate in Ireland at the moment what with the light-fingered bankers and the depressing recession and the unholy trinity of the Troika and Jedward representing us in the Eurovision song contest. Again.
If the nation feels the need to celebrate the death of a man who, as a boy, was taken by Irish thugs from the warm safety of his bed in the middle of the night, then who am I to rain on their parade?
As a child, I hated St. Patrick’s Day. My parents forced us go to the parade. My mother sent us out in the morning to pick shamrock. We lived in a housing estate, for feck’s sake. But we wouldn’t be allowed home until we’d wrestled a few soggy sprigs out of the cold, hard ground. Then she’d pin the mucky weed on our coats that were always green. Even when it wasn’t St. Patrick’s Day, most of my clothes were green. ‘Green suits you’ my mother said. I think it was on account of my red hair which, back then, tended more towards carrot. Pink and red were for the likes of the girls with the tanned skin and dark hair. The lovely girls, Father Ted would have called them. Beside them, in my green tights, green kilts, green aran jumpers, green knickers and green vests, and my red hair, white skin and orange freckles, I could pass for a leprechaun if the need ever arose which it rarely did.
In the dour 70s and 80s, the parade was more a procession than a parade. A funeral procession. It was always cold and wet. Through the thick sheets of rain, it was difficult to see the miserable line of tractors and trailers and milk trucks and cement lorries trundling past. The only way you’d know it was a parade and not a traffic jam were the few wrinkled green balloons trailing along after the tractors and trailers, and maybe a lopsided, handwritten sign, stuck to the side of one of them, with a bit of cellotape.
1986 was probably the worst parade. The dourest of them. I was there with a group of friends. I was 16 and there was a boy. There’s always a boy when you’re 16 and it’s never a story with a happy ending. This particular boy was unaware of the fact that I was a fully paid-up member of the human race. I spent the day trying to convince him that I was. When that didn’t work, I took the bus home and I had a great time, staring out at the wet, grey Dublin streets and concentrating on being as miserable as I could. 16 year olds have a wonderful capacity for misery and I was better than most. It was only when I was getting off the bus that I saw him. At the back of the bus. He wasn’t alone. He was with someone. He was with my friend.
There I was. Sweet sixteen and never been on the back seat of the bus with a boy….My mother would have been so proud. I was cold and wet and miserable. A bit like the parade back then, I suppose.
Nowadays St Patrick’s Day is an event. A festival. It goes on for about as long as an Irish wake but is more cheerful. It is slick and sophisticated and colourful and multi-cultural. Back in the dour 70s and 80s, people thought ‘multi-cultural’ was a vitamin you had to take if you were going out ‘foreign’ where the food mightn’t be up to scratch…
I took my children to see the parade last year. The day was sunny. And warm. We stood on the pavement near the Black Church and climbed the stepladder my sister-in-law had the wherewithal to bring, so we could see everything. There was a lot to see. It was more mardi gras than procession. The atmosphere was carnival. There wasn’t a tractor or trailer in sight. No deflated balloons or cellotape. No mournful tin whistles piercing the gloom like a shriek. None of that. I mean, yes, there were tin whistles. Of course there were. But they weren’t a bit mournful. They were lovely.
Of course, being a cantankerous type of individual, I found myself hankering back to the long ago, when my father hoisted me onto the broad seat of his shoulders so I could get the full impact of the bitter north-easterly full in the face and a great view of the tractors and trailers and milk trucks and cement lorries trundling past. My father’s hands around my ankles, my hands wrapped around his head like a bandana. Afterwards, McDonalds. That Holy Grail of treats. 99’s on the way home. Never too cold for a 99. Not back then. Eat the flake first. Then take a bite from the bottom of the cone and suck the icecream down. Brain freeze after. That was the process. We never deviated.
This year, we will be in Ardara, Co. Donegal where the town will try and beat a world record for the number of St. Patrick’s congregating in any one place at any one time. It’ll be just like the olden days. Me in a green frock…
Whatever part of the world you’re in this St. Patrick’s day, may the road rise to meet you, may the wind be always at your back, the sun shine warm upon your face and the rains fall soft upon your fields. May your belly be full of bacon and cabbage and floury potatoes, and may your pints of Guinness be adorned with shamrocks drawn on the froth, pulled by a barman who knows what he’s doing.
Lá Fhéile Pádraig Sona Daoibh
Ciara Geraghty has written three novels (Saving Grace, Becoming Scarlett and Finding Mr. Flood). Her fourth novel, Lifesaving for Beginners will be published in October 2012. Ciara lives in Dublin with three children, one dog and one husband (not necessarily listed in order of preference).
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