St. Patrick’s Day was a big deal at the Holy Name of Jesus grammar school. Not surprising, since Holy Name was the the “Irish” parish, not to be confused with the “Polish” parish of St. Stanislaw’s or the “French” parish of the Assumption, each only a few blocks away. I still remember the novelty of wearing a green tie with our school uniform instead of the usual navy blue, and how cool I felt when my mother, good Slovenian that she was, pinned a St. Patrick’s medal with its tri-colored ribbon on my shirt pocket. Not every kid had one of those! It must have endeared me to all the Irish-American nuns who taught us. The big event every March was the St. Patrick’s Day concert, where our parents and families came to see each class belt out the usual classics, such as “Toora-Loora-Loora,” “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling,” and “McNamara’s Band.” The only other annual major concert at our school was for Christmas.
By the time I got to college, my repertoire of Irish songs had expanded to take in the entire Clancy Brothers oeuvre, and my solo performances were usually around closing time at one of Washington, D.C.’s several Irish pubs. These serenades weren’t limited to St. Patrick’s Day, either! During my junior year abroad in Ireland, I found St. Patrick’s Day there decidedly low key and dull compared to my outing in New York City the year before. By the time I reached my mid-20s, I shunned Irish pubs on St. Patrick’s Day, considering them “amateur night,” and as I have gotten older my St. Patrick’s Day celebrations have become decidedly more restrained — a single quiet glass of Guinness while listening to a DeDannan CD is usually about it.
So what are we celebrating in our raucous or quiet way on St. Patrick’s Day anyway? Well, first of course, it is the feast day of St. Patrick himself, the patron saint of Ireland. In popular legend, St. Patrick is noted for having driven the snakes out of Ireland (which, aside from the two-legged politician variety, at least explains why none are found there today). More important, risking and sacrificing much, he brought the Catholic faith to pagan Ireland and became its first bishop. This explains why in Ireland, at least until recently, it was more of a religious holy day than the green version of Mardi Gras that it so often in the United States. For Irish-Americans of course, it has long been a day of ethnic pride, where we celebrate our ancestral roots in the distinctively American way with brass-bands, parades, and green beer. There is no green beer, by the way, in Ireland.
So what’s up with all the green beer, green funny hats, and green banners? Green, of course, is the Irish national color (at least among Irish republicans). There are very few Irishman or Irish-Americans above a certain age that don’t know the old ballad “Wearing O’ the Green,” and its verse,
…And he said “How’s poor old Ireland?
And how does she stand?”
She’s the most distressful country
That ever you have seen,
They’re hanging men and women there
For wearing of the green.
Ireland’s long and doleful history under English rule and the resulting mass migration to America and elsewhere are deeply woven into Irish and Irish-American identity and self-understanding. Even in first grade, it was with pride and a little anxiety, lest any British were lurking in the playground, that I wore that green tie! So naturally, now that we can wear green without being hanged (ain’t America great!), we make a show of it.
So St. Patrick’s Day is about honoring the patron saint of Ireland, and by extension the homeland from whence our ancestors came. It is also celebrating the gift of being Irish, and being grateful that we can do it openly and without fear in this great country of America. So God bless Ireland! And may God bless the Irish, wherever they may be.
— Colin Shea writes from Boston.