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I’m a bit ambivalent about St. Patrick’s Day. What is it about March 17th 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 Irishness, with plastic green bowler hats and/or T-shirts emblazoned with a command for everyone to kiss them. 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 the green beer flowing to strains of Danny Boy and all those ringlets bouncing heavily on the heads of Irish dancers, I’m beginning to wonder if I was always absent on St. Patrick’s Day. How could I have grown up down the road from Mount Slemish, where the young Patrick tended his sheep, and missed all these shenanigans? Incidentally, along with a bunch of girls from school, I went to Irish Dancing 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 Michael Flatley’s Riverdancers.
I have long since forgotten the name of my 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 brought my lovely dancing costume to America with me. It hangs in the back of a closet, reminiscent of Miss Havisham’s wedding dress. Dare I ask my daughter to humor me and try it on. It is St. Patrick’s Day after all . . .
Then there’s the corned beef and cabbage. Honestly, we never had corned beef. We had the best of sirloin from Stewart’s Butchers, a place with saffron colored sawdust on the floor. I traced figures of eight in it with the toes of the 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. Their navy and white striped aprons smeared with blood and bits of raw beef, the young butchers of Stewart’s looked a bit menacing, especially while sharpening their knives as I ordered a pound of mince. Cabbage, I still associate with the overcooked vegetables, lumpy custard, and tapioca served for lunch at Antrim Primary School. 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. But it had nothing to do with St. Patrick. Corned beef and cabbage would have been no more than a coincidence on St. Patrick’s Day four decades ago.
And, the shamrocks. I don’t remember Pat the barman in the Crown Bar in Belfast taking the time to trace a shamrock on the head of a pint of Guinness for my friend Ruth or me, nor do I remember shamrocks or Celtic knots tattooed with pride on young shoulders; rather, they were carved into headstones in old graveyards. I never paid much attention to that part of the story about St. Patrick driving all the snakes out of Ireland, although it has crossed my mind when I have encountered real snakes slithering across my path on a hike through the Arizona desert. I have found them much less poisonous than the human variety, especially those given to leaving nasty remarks on my blog. You know who you are, and I almost feel sorry for you.
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 nurses. The nurses were all young men, which, in retrospect, strikes me as odd. In a good way. 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. I still remember trying very hard not to think of the Catholic publican, Sean Byrne, and his brother, Brendan, who had been shot to death, at point blank range, in that very place. Somehow, Mrs. Byrne had kept going and on St. Patrick’s Day, she outdid herself, with a giant pot of Irish stew, the likes of which I defy you to find in America. Bland to the American taste-buds, I’m sure, but for us, when combined with an aromatic turf fire, a hot Powers whiskey, and someone like Big Micky playing The Lonesome Boatman on a tin whistle in the back bar, it was big and bold in flavor. Unforgettable. On such a night, we basked in our Irish identity. We knew who we were.
You are unlikely to find me at the St. Patrick’s Day Parade and Faire in Phoenix, especially on a 90 degree day, but this afternoon, you might just find me out by the pool with the unlikely sounds of Christy Moore and the Raggle Taggle Gypsy filling the backyard and Edna O’Brien’s Saints and Sinners in hand. If you have an hour or two to be Irish today, dip your toes in any of the following:
“When some 12,000 people poured into Vicar St in Dublin and the Glór Irish Music Centre in Ennis, County Clare for Planxty’s first live dates in well over twenty years, it became apparent that these concerts were being celebrated not just by an audience of veteran folk music aficionados, but equally by a whole new generation of younger fans who previously could only dream of how Planxty sounded in the flesh. How beautiful it was to watch sons and daughters with mothers and fathers joined in mutual appreciation of these four musicians and their very unique musical chemistry. In fact, even Planxty’s own children got to see them perform together for the first time.”
2. The Country Girls Trilogy and Epilogue by Edna O’Brien. Let it be noted that my brother has apologized for his terrible lapse in judgement and agrees that Ms. O’Brien’s not too shabby in the story-telling department after all.
3. The Horslips – the original “Dancehall Sweethearts” singing Dearg Doom.
4. Modern Irish Short Stories – if you want to understand the art of the short story as “putting the oak tree back in the acorn,” this little gem is a must. The size of a small bible, it is packed with stories by the likes of Frank O’Connor, Mary Lavin, Bernard McClaverty, George Moore, and a touch of Joyce.
5. Astral Weeks/I Believe I have Transcended – Van Morrison in full flow at The Hollywood Bowl, mystifying us witha song he once described as “one where you can see the light at the end of the tunnel.”
6. Seamus Heaney’s Poetry – When I want to stop the world for a minute and go ‘back home’ to those lovely rhythms of rural County Derry, I listen to Heaney read from The Haw Lantern, a collection of sonnets he wrote for his mother.
In Memoriam M.K.H., 1911-1984
When all the others were away at Mass
I was all hers as we peeled potatoes.
They broke the silence, let fall one by one
Like solder weeping off the soldering iron:
Cold comforts set between us, things to share
Gleaming in a bucket of clean water.
And again let fall. Little pleasant splashes
From each other’s work would bring us to our senses.
So while the parish priest at her bedside
Went hammer and tongs at the prayers for the dying
And some were responding and some crying
I remembered her head bent towards my head,
Her breath in mine, our fluent dipping knives–
Never closer the whole rest of our lives
7. To School Through the Fields or Quench the Lamp by Alice Taylor (although I swear my father could have written either of these evocative tales of a childhood in Ireland). The Irish way of telling stories is unique. Written in English but always with a distinct Irish beat.
9. On Raglan Road by Patrick Kavanagh
“On Raglan Road on an autumn day I met her first and knew
That her dark hair would weave a snare that I might one day rue;
I saw the danger, yet I walked along the enchanted way,
And I said, let grief be a fallen leaf at the dawning of the day.
On Grafton Street in November we tripped lightly along the ledge
Of the deep ravine where can be seen the worth of passion’s pledge,
The Queen of Hearts still making tarts and I not making hay –
O I loved too much and by such and such is happiness thrown away.
I gave her gifts of the mind I gave her the secret sign that’s known
To the artists who have known the true gods of sound and stone
And word and tint. I did not stint for I gave her poems to say.
With her own name there and her own dark hair like clouds over fields of May
On a quiet street where old ghosts meet I see her walking now
Away from me so hurriedly my reason must allow
That I had wooed not as I should a creature made of clay –
When the angel woos the clay he’d lose his wings at the dawn of day.”
10. Summer in Dublin – Bagatelle. I regularly took the Inner-city Express from Belfast to Dublin in the summers of the early 1980s. I know this is not something you would ever hear on The Old Grey Whistle Test but it is St. Patrick’s Day, and I might as well be every bit as maudlin as the rest of you.
Now, I know I have omitted Yeats and Joyce, Wilde and Shaw, U2 and The Chieftains, Rory Gallagher and Phil Lynott, Moving Hearts and Thin Lizzy, Brian Moore and Jennifer Johnston, but you’ll find them all and so many more on other people’s lists.
Enjoy them all this St. Patrick’s Day!