“To forget the dead would be akin to killing them a second time.”
― Elie Wiesel, Night
I am ambivalent about St. Patrick’s Day, still not sure what it is about March 17th that renders so many people Irish or some version of it that I do not recall from living the first twenty-seven years of my life in Northern Ireland. Everywhere I turn on Friday, there will be Americans proclaiming their Irishness, some in T-shirts emblazoned with a command to kiss them, others bearing warnings that they are falling-down drunk. Because they are Irish. Even elected officials whose nationality we never knew or cared about will become bona fide Irish. I wonder just how many frazzled interns there must be in these United States, tasked by politicians keen on maintaining a hold on “the Irish vote,” with finding some verifiable, however microscopic, proof of their Irish heritage.
Identity matters. Who are we? Who do we want to be? Who am I? Am I Irish? Northern Irish? British? Ulster Irish? Well, it depends, and I know I’m entering dangerous territory here, especially this year as we grapple with Brexit and the outcome of the recent Assembly election in Northern Ireland. My brother, more eloquent than I, and still living and working in Ireland, broke it down for me one day, commenting on the “fractured and dissensual nature of our cultural background, where declarations of nationhood are open to contention (Northern Ireland versus the North of Ireland; Derry versus Londonderry) and can be dangerous, and potentially fatal.” Maybe this is why I traded in my homeland for America, falling in love with the very idea of it, an idea that I watched unravel at break-neck speed in the 2016 race for President of the United States.
I consider myself Irish – or as my favorite professor used to say of me, I “aspire to a united Ireland” – but my “documentation” suggests something of an identity crisis. I was born in Northern Ireland and own a British passport (just to be on the safe side) and I need to renew my Irish passport before we are booted out of the EU. My American permanent residency card states Ireland as my country of birth, but my birth certificate states my birthplace as the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. I am one of her Royal Majesty’s subjects – except when I’m not – like the time a waiter at Heathrow Airport refused to accept my money because, although Sterling, it was printed on a Bank of Ulster note. My money had identified me as something other than acceptable.
A more subtle subtext persists in America. Even in Arizona, a flashpoint for immigration issues, it seems everyone is at least fractionally Irish on March 17th. With green beer flowing and all those ringlets bouncing heavily on the heads of Irish dancers, and people pinching me if I’m not wearing green, I sometimes wonder if maybe I was always absent on St. Patrick’s Day. How could I have missed all these shenanigans even though I grew up down the road from Mount Slemish, where the Patron Saint tended his sheep?
Contemplating all of this, and for the record, I feel compelled to tell you that along with a bunch of girls from school, I attended Irish Dancing every week at the Protestant Hall on Railway Street in Antrim. Also for the record, none of us had either the ringlets or the straight backs and long legs of Flatley’s Riverdancers. Still, I loved it, and while I have long since forgotten the name of our lovely teacher, I remember that she was kind and made me feel like I was a dancer. Today, I couldn’t do a slip-jig to save my life, but I can prove that I once could – I could show you inside the red box that held my first Timex watch, where wrapped in tissue paper are all my medals.
And I suppose because I appreciated the craft that went into it, and I wanted to hold on to it when I came to America, I even brought with me – in my rucksack– the dancing costume that last fit me when I was 12. It hangs in the back of a closet, reminiscent of Miss Havisham’s wedding dress. I don’t think I could part with it.
Then there’s the corned beef and cabbage. I have never had corned beef and cabbage. Not even once. We always had the best of sirloin from Stewart’s Butchers – a place with saffron colored sawdust on the floor in which I traced figures of eight with the toes of my brogues. 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. I remember being a bit afraid of the young butchers. Even though they weren’t that much older than me, they were mildly menacing in their blue and white striped aprons all smeared with blood and bits of raw beef, sharpening their knives while I stood on the other side of the counter ordering a pound of minced beef for mammy.
As for cabbage, I still associate it 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 is hard to beat, although not as good as turnip. But it had nothing to do with St. Patrick. Corned beef and cabbage would have been no more than a n unfortunate coincidence on St. Patrick’s Day four decades ago.
Then there are the shamrocks and the snakes. I don’t remember Pat the barman in The Crown Bar in Belfast ever taking the time to trace a shamrock on the head of a pint of Guinness for my friend Ruth or me, and as much time as we spent in there – and as much as we flirted with him – it was the least he could have done. Nor do I remember shamrocks or Celtic knots tattooed on young shoulders; rather, they were carved into headstones in old graveyards or embellished around stained glass windows at church. I never paid much attention to that bit of the story when St. Patrick drove all the snakes out of Ireland, although it has come back to me when I have sidestepped the odd snake slithering across my path on a hike through the Phoenix mountains. Real talk – they have been 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 neighbors who went 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.” There’s a bit of irony there, given the young saint’s passion for spreading Christianity.
All that being said, by the time I was living and studying in Belfast, St. Patrick’s Day had evolved into a good excuse for an extended pub crawl with a motley crew of art students, engineers, and teachers. My last St. Patrick’s Day back home was in 1987. It was a cold Tuesday night, and we were on the hunt for craic and pints, so we piled in a taxi and headed for The Wayside Halt, a nondescript country pub on the edge of the dual carriageway between Antrim and Ballymena. It’s the kind of place that wouldn’t merit a second look. Walking into it, I sobered, the events of May 24, 1974, rushing at me like scenes from a black and white documentary. My father had told me about how on that May evening, one of his friends had suggested stopping at the pub for a quick pint on the way home. Back home, the “quick pint” is something of a paradox, and because da was in a rush to complete his bread deliveries before dark that Friday night, he declined. As he tells it, before he reached Randalstown, the harrowing word had arrived that within the previous hour, Loyalist paramilitaries had barged into the Wayside Halt, and shot at point-blank range, the Catholic publican, Shaun Byrne, and his brother, Brendan. Other pub owners in the Ballymena area had been attacked as well, their places of business vandalized because they had decided to remain open during the United Workers Council Strike of 1974.
Shaun and Brendan Byrne were murdered, while the children were in the sitting room upstairs. And in the picture sent to me by one of the Byrne family, the only child not home that evening is the little girl standing at her father’s right shoulder.
Somehow – I know not how – Mrs. Byrne kept going, and on that St. Patrick’s Day in 1987, 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 when combined with an aromatic turf fire, a half-un of Jamesons or a hot Powers whiskey, and someone like Big Mickey playing “The Lonesome Boatman” on a tin whistle in the back bar, it was big and bold in flavor. It was unforgettable. On such a night, we basked in our Irish identity.
We knew who we were.
And every St. Patrick’s Day since, I am drawn back to The Wayside Halt. For the craic. For a pint with good friends. For Mrs. Byrne. And to bear witness.