St. Patrick’s Day celebration the Irish way

St. Patrick’s Day is a grand day to be Irish. And on March 17th most New Yorkers will pretend to be thus, at least for 24 hours. Despite the cultural and religious significance of the day honoring Ireland’s most beloved saint, most people in our country use this day as an opportunity to let their hair down, some more foolishly than others. 

For years, my office at Cornerstone Communications was one block from the Manhattan parade route.  Having Irish blood on my mother’s side—a McAllister, no less—gave me a legitimate reason to steal away for an hour to go hear the marching bands and see people sometimes ridiculously attired in all manners of green and orange.  Every year I would put on my much beloved, intrepid, Irish wool jacket and proudly saunter off for some Craic (pronounced “crack” meaning “fun” in Irish.)

A few years ago, Mary Gorman—a lovely Irish lady who worked at our agency—was aghast that her boss would participate in such ridiculous St. Paddy’s revelry.   Being the real deal, Mary also took exception to Americans’ childish mis-perception of her country’s most famous holiday. 

“When I was growing up,” she told our staff, “St. Patrick’s Day was not widely celebrated in the manner it is in the US. Back then it meant going to mass, wearing a clump of shamrock, a day off from school and viewing certain sporting matches reserved for that time of year.”

Both Mary and her also Irish husband, Joe McAdams, recall one extra feature: Being able to indulge in whatever you had given up for lent.  As Joe explains it, “Most importantly, it is an ‘unofficial’ break from Lent so whatever you renounced (beer, chocolate, potato chips, cigarettes, etc.), you receive a day of reprieve. This means you can have that chocolate bar before the run into Easter.” 

As for the parade, it is celebrated in every town and village in Ireland. Joe nostalgically describes a typical parade such as the one which occurs annually in Mary’s home town in rural Ireland.  “There is a procession made up of local businesses with their floats, vintage cars, the village band (if there is one), and the church choir. It is quaint, good natured and utterly charming.”

Fast forward and while the small communities still celebrate in a mild-manner fashion, the St. Patrick’s Day parades of today now held in Dublin and some of the larger cities, according to Joe, have lost their charm and humanity.  “The one in Dublin, for example, has been turned into a monster parade more reminiscent of the New York version: big, boisterous and designed for TV and tourists.”

And the “perceived” tradition of drinking in Ireland on Saint Patrick’s Day?  Mary says, “Yes, people in my village would go to the pub but it was never the drink fest it is here.”

What remains undisputedly true about the Irish, however, is their bright wit and engaging way of telling stories. After all, these are the people who have the tradition of Seanchais in their blood. In ancient Ireland, these were the highly respected story-tellers who trained for twelve years, learning grammar, versification, oratory, and philosophy, among other skills.  Once they had mastered the memorization of hundreds of poems and stories, they were invited to sit with the king. 

At this time of year, I always think about my own short sojourn in Mary and Joe’s country. Years ago, my husband and I cycled through County Cork with VBT.  Our group couldn’t get over the locals’ natural talents as bards.  One evening we were staying at a small country inn where the wife did the cooking while the husband tended the bar. 

Out of curiosity, we asked our host to tell us about the bucolic scene in the painting over the bar’s vast, sandstone fireplace.  In his wonderfully lilting brogue he began by telling us the oil painting had been in the family for generations.  It belonged to his grandmother’s old-maid sister whose prized cattle were featured lapping up water from a small pond. Further, he recounted, these were dairy cows which produced the best cheese in the county.  He went on for ten minutes weaving a spell-binding tale about the aunt’s sad life of first losing a suitor who drowned at sea then later, a brief engagement with a wealthy farmer which also abruptly ended in a tragedy.  At the end of the sorrowful tale, we were compelled to ask, “Is this a true story?”  With a twinkle in his eye, he replied, “Of course not.  I was merely trying to amuse you American bikers. Now, won’t you have another whisky, my friends?” Now, that's being enterprising and hospitable, two qualities the Irish possess in spades.

And should you celebrate a bit too much on St. Patrick’s Day, a good way to soak up the previous night’s regrets is with a full Irish breakfast: fried eggs, Irish “rasher” (bacon) and sausage, black and white pudding, baked beans, mushroom, baked tomato halves, Irish soda bread, creamery butter and yes, Breakfast Tea.  Jam is optional.