I grew up during the 1980s in the Republic of Ireland. At a time when the evening news frequently summarised violence occuring not too far away north of the border, as well as the more global fears of the Cold War, there was a constant sense of existential threat.
I still associate a lot of that fear with Irishness itself, a feeling of precariousness. To be Irish was to live with an awareness of political upheaval and religious discrimination. In schools we were taught that the language we spoke had been forced on us, that our religious faith was something that had to be practiced in secret before we became a Republic, that famine was deliberately inflicted on the rural population of the country and that those who fled to the States were treated with contempt – the legendary “no Irish need apply” shop signs.
With that brew of martyrdom and fear bubbling away for most of the year, the calendar date of March 17 felt like a release.
The celebrative air was palpable. Morning mass was tinged with impatience to see the festivities in New York, or Toronto on television.
On occasion my dad brought me to Dublin to watch the parade on O’Connell Street. There were impressive floats, performers juggling or marching on stilts, and legions of American high school girls wearing unseasonal leotards.
For one day I felt connected to a global community of Irish people, what President Mary Robinson famously (and at the cost of much mockery at the time) described as the diaspora.
From having been reminded over and over that we as a people were somehow victims of history, witnessing the scale of the celebration and the obvious expense American cousins were going to to mark the occasion shifted how I saw being Irish.
As I have grown older, that optimism has sadly faded. What felt like a global net, connecting us to countries around the world, has come to feel like a tourism showcase. When the news broke that the Sydney St Patrick’s Day event was not going ahead in 2016 due to lack of finances, it was pointed out that the Irish government had been providing funding. The news that the government paid to light Opera House green at a time of economic downturn indicated it saw investing money in attracting overseas tourists as more important than domestic services and infrastructure expenditure.
Also, while I have fond memories of sitting on my dad’s shoulders and watching the parade go past, revisiting O’Connell Street as an adult was less pleasant. The messy drunkenness and packed streets inspired claustrophobia instead of celebration.
As online culture grew in the early 2000s, there were more photos of Americans dressed in green partying to excess. We were bound together by alcohol consumption, not culture. The habit of Americans referring to the day as ‘St Patty’s Day’ made that clear.
Matters came to a head in 2008 when the Irish clergy informed the country Holy Week necessitated a move of St Patrick’s Day to March 15. The Irish, not interested in whatever ecclesiastical ruminations had led to this decision, went ahead and held the march on the 17th regardless.
A year before, Father Vincent Twomey – priest and member of conservative thinktank the Iona Institute – represented some of the thinking behind that failed startegy in an interview to The Word magazine. Fr Twomey stated: “Paddy’s Week is descending into an excuse for mindless alcohol-fuelled revelry. Must it be so?” and concluded “it is time to bring the piety and the fun together”.
I never want to be on the same side of any argument with an Iona member, but to be honest – I did begin avoiding the Dublin town centre on Paddy’s Day. When living in Sydney, I saw fellow migrants rolling out of pubs the morning after the night before.
The Irish clergy complain that the event itself has become too secular – but this presupposes it was traditionally religious. Largely this is founded on the complex symbolism of Patrick himself as a national figure. Religion and politics were joined at the hip in Irish life for centuries during the British occupation. It is significant that St Patrick’s Day parades commenced shortly after the Republic was formed. From the beginning, the celebration had a nationalist flavour to it.
Even depictions of Patrick, the presence of green and sometimes blue in his clothing, has associations with the colours of various revolutionary or republican movements down through the years.
Now it is largely believed that the man named Patricius who was canonised by the Catholic Church for his efforts in bringing Christianity to the pagans of Ireland was a composite figure. Some of his missionary work is attributed to a previous visitor from Europe, Palladius.
Ironically Palladius spent more time in the region where Dublin, centre of St. Patrick’s Day celebrations, is located than the man we credit with being our national saint. He in turn largely ministered in the north and west of the island.
In effect, St Patrick’s Day is an event based on uncertain foundations, which was originally celebrated as a way of confirming our own sense of identity as a nation. A nation that had lost millions of citizens to famine and immigration. Those values, not simply spiritual ones, but of political identity, simply do not carry the weight they once did for the younger, more affluent Irish of today.
Who, like Americans, British and Australians, now use the occasion as an excuse to drink.