People in America do not believe in half-way celebrating. From the feasting of Thanksgiving, to the skies on fire for the 4th of July – from the vibrant floats of Mardi Gras, to the hung-over heads on Super Bowl Monday, they are all in.
It should come as no surprise then that a small Irish holiday, known as “St.Patrick’s Day” (absolutely never, under no earthly circumstances, whether real or imagined, should this day EVER be referred to as …….St. Patty’s Day), would be borrowed, some may even say “hijacked” from the Irish and turned into the biggest drink-fest that not even the Saint himself could have foreseen.
I have no need to tell anyone how the 17th of March is celebrated each year, from Key West to Alaska and all points in between. What I would like to do however, is to tell you how it used to be celebrated in Ireland (and still is to a certain extent, but far away from the major cities).
First and foremost, no matter what day of the week that St. Patrick’s Day fell on, it was regarded as a Sunday. That meant that schools and Government officers were all closed. It was a State (National) holiday. The day started off with Morning Mass, just like a Sunday. The obligation of going to Mass was difficult to explain in our house. On one hand, we were made go, but our father had a very strange relationship with the local Parish Priest. He went more out of spite than anything else.
I saw the two of them as arch rivals (and I would not be a bit surprised if they did not think of themselves in such a way). If I was to describe them in Super Hero/Villain terms (which I know is a stretch of the imagination, but imaginations were made to be stretched and contorted, after all), I would have to say they were most like Batman and the Penguin. The Priest was the Penguin of course, since he always wore a black and white uniform, and my auld fella was like Batman. He wasn’t like Batman because he fought the forces of evil. To me, he was more like Batman because he was bat-shit crazy.**
But enough about religion and crazy people, for the time being. After Mass, we looked forward, nay, we children foamed at the mouths, thinking of St. Patrick’s Day dinner. It was one day where you could be sure that dinner would be something special. A chicken would be found somewhere and we would hungrily tuck into roast chicken, roast and mashed potatoes, carrots and most likely Brussel sprouts.
Pubs did a modest trade, but they wouldn’t be heaving either. They too adhered to Sunday hours, which meant that they closed from 2pm to 4pm. It was an Irish Law that pubs (short for “Public Houses”) had to close down for two hours after last Mass. This gave men a chance to have a couple of pints before their dinner, but ensured that they would not stay drinking all afternoon and miss eating with their families. It is a commonly held belief that Priests had so many women calling them to complain about their husbands failing to come home that the Church pressured the law makers to sign the mid-day closedown into law.
Many towns would have a small parade, which was more agricultural based than anything else. Tractors would pull trailers with step dancers on board and local businesses would advertise their wares. Upon re-opening, local pubs would serve their normal number of clientele and would close at the earlier time of 10pm (Sunday pub closing hours). Unlike revelers in the U.S., Irish celebrants did not cover themselves in green paraphernalia, or drink green beer. It was customary to wear a sprig of fresh shamrocks on your lapel (for men), or frock (for the ladies). Not only did my parents not drink, but my mother was violently opposed to alcohol.
When I went out into the Irish workforce (the world as we knew it) I would have casual drinks on St. Patrick’s Day, but the imbibing did not go on much past the 10pm closing hour. It was not until 1987 and my first St. Patrick’s Day in New York City that I experienced getting well and truly smashed. Still, I refrained from being greenified and opted for a green shamrock pin on my lapel.
These days, the irony is that Irish people in cities like Dublin party like they were in New York, having learned it from America! They do however draw the line at drinking green beer!
** In my memoir; “The Big Yank – Memoir of a Boy Growing Up Irish,” I share a story about the strange relationship not only between my father and myself, but also between my father and the local Parish Priest; Father Bernard Duffy. My father (The Big Yank), insisted on calling the priest simply, Bernard, despite the fact that every parishioner in Ireland at the time would be horrified to hear a clergy man addressed in such an informal manner. That was just the tip of the ice berg, however. Other stunts included rushing to Mass on a Sunday morning early, so that he could park his rust-riddled Ford in the spot inside the church gates, reserved solely for the Priest and reading the Sunday newspaper in the front pews, in full view of the Priest and the other church-goers.
“The Big Yank – Memoir of a Boy Growing Up Irish,” can be found on Amazon books, Barnes and Noble, or by getting a signed copy from the my website. Click here to learn more.