Invoking St Patrick

Next week Ireland will, as it does every year, move centre stage in many parts of the world as St Patrick’s Day is celebrated. And as we now know that there’s no-one as Irish as Barack O’Bama, the US President will receive the usual shamrock from the Taoiseach, Brian Cowen. as the latter visits the White House.

Together with my family, I moved to Ireland in 1961, and for the years of my youth I do not really recall taking much notice of St Patrick’s Day at all. Sure enough, it was a bank holiday, but in those days bank holidays were somewhat joyless affairs, with all shops closed and not much happening anywhere. There was I think an annual parade in Dublin, but as I didn’t live there back then I never saw it; and as far as I can recall, there were no such festivities in Mullingar; and even the Dublin parade was, by all accounts, a modest enough affair.

In 1984 I experienced an entirely different kind of St Patrick’s Day. That year, during a period of sabbatical leave, I was staying and doing research in Berkeley, California. Around March 10 the whole place became an Irish theme park, with green beer and funny green hats everywhere. At first I was rather startled, then horrified, then dismissive, and then gradually I entered into the spirit of the thing and by the time the 17th came around I was greeting people with ‘top o’ the morning’ like the best of them. And I began to understand and appreciate the amazing ability of Americans to turn culture into festival, and to allow over-the-top celebrations somehow to work.

I realised then of course that St Patrick’s Day was really an American holiday, and I wondered about all those US visitors to Ireland in March who must have been dreadfully disappointed at the sub-standard show we put on here. But maybe not any more: for the past few years Dublin in particular has put on an extremely good festival, and I am glad that gloom and doom notwithstanding, it is being put on again this year.

It is likely that a good deal of the folklore surrounding our patron saint is not literally true, but his influence on us today is nothing but good. In his honour Ireland has a unique opportunity to stand on the world stage and be noticed in March, and this year more than ever we can do with that opportunity. So I hope we find a spirit of celebration and optimism, and that the ceremony in the White House will connect this country with Moneygall’s favourite son, and that we will all move on to tackle our problems and crises with a new sense of purpose and confidence.

My advice is to start celebrating right now – we need a good week to do it right.

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