Guinness and a nip of Bushmills in a cosy bar in Galway. It transcends differing cultures, time zones and nationalities in order to bring the world’s craic (Gaelic word simply meaning ‘good times’) addicted masses together in joyful, unfettered celebration. St Patrick’s Day fills the spirit with wave after wave of green, attempts to drown you in an ocean of Guinness and leaves you with a smile wider than the Giant’s Causeway. It’s the world’s most international national holiday. And it’s not just the Irish, they’re all enjoying it you know: the
Americans (especially the Americans), the Russians, the Japanese, the Canadians, the French, the Australians, hey, even the English are known to raise a smile on the big day. On March 17th everybody the world over wants to be Irish. The festivities celebrate the life of Saint Patrick, a man who escaped slavery, found Christianity (possibly in France) and returned to Ireland to spread the word of Christ amongst the largely pagan population. By the time of his death he had baptized thousands, established many churches and used the shamrock as an aid to explain the Holy Trinity. Oh yes, and he drove all the snakes out of Ireland – busy chap. The passing centuries have led to the myths surrounding him growing in number, stories of his life to become more fantastical and, ultimately, for Patrick to become not only Ireland’s patron saint but also a powerful symbol of the country’s individualism, compassion and strength.The first recorded Saint Patrick’s Day parade was held in the United States, not the Emerald Isle, on March 17th 1762 – approximately 1,300 years after his death. Irish soldiers serving in the English army marched through New York, accompanied by traditional music, in an attempt to help the soldiers (briefly) feel closer to their homeland. Subsequent parades helped establish the Irish community, which had swelled after the Great Potato Famine hit Ireland in 1845, and they became a show of unity and strength – so much so that in 1948 President Truman attended the New York St Patrick’s Parade. The most bizarre aspect of this is that New York has the biggest parade anywhere in the world, whereas Ireland has lagged behind their American comrades until very recently. St Patrick’s Day has traditionally been a religious occasion in Ireland and up until the 1970s the law prohibited the opening of pubs on March 17th. This contributed towards the sad fact that Ireland’s celebration of their patron saint paled in comparison to other festivals around the world. In 1995 the Irish government decided that enough was enough and that the nation needed a festival that would be the focal point for festivities worldwide. A St Patrick’s Day Festival team was appointed with the mandate of providing a national festival that would be recognised as one of the greatest celebrations on the planet, bringing the people of Ireland together in celebration. In 1996 the festival attracted a crowd of 430,000, two years later 865,000 people were estimated to have attended the six events that took place over four days. This year the festival, again spread over four days and encompassing six different events, should attract a record crowd. The festival will start on Friday March 16th with a hour long parade of lights along the River Liffey, the next event is the traditional festival parade on March 17th (expected to attract half a million people) followed by a celebration of Irish dance. Sunday 18th is the day of Dublin’s street carnivals and finally, on Monday 19th, there’s a fireworks event in the evening after some of Dublin’s finest buildings and heritage centres have opened their doors to the public. All in all, it’s a full celebration of Irish life that is now envied the world over. Not that it's the only celebration in Ireland, there’s celebrations and outpourings of local pride in Downpatrick, Belfast, Galway and virtually every other Irish town. However, despite Ireland beginning to get it’s act together in terms of providing its citizens with celebrations befitting the occasion, New York remains the focal point of the world on St Patrick’s Day. Have you ever noticed that if you read an unusual article in a newspaper, watch a bizarre news story on television or hear a ridiculous report on the radio, you believe what is said if you find out that it originates from the United States? British comedian Frank Skinner was the first to point out this phenomenon: any story he heard which verged on the ridiculous could be validated with just two words – “in America”. This applies to St Patrick’s Day in New York last year where some of the stories seem to be a smidgen closer to fantasy than reality. For example, Hillary Clinton was involved in a row with the Irish Lesbian and Gay Organisation and a Long Island bar owner placed a half-page advert in the Irish Echo newspaper calling for members of the public to join him in a burning of Angela’s Ashes in protest – against what no one is sure. Welcome to America. St.Patrick’s Day in New York is, above all else, an entertaining, brash and sensational diversion from everyday life. Everywhere you look there’s green: people wearing green clothes, flowers and hats, quaffing green beers and frolicking in green water
fountains. Overshadowing the floats and the 150,000 marchers who parade down 5th Avenue is a green Empire State Building, the construction of which began on St Patrick’s Day 1930 – even though the building was scheduled to be built on 8th March of that year. This was the will of the Irish-American who was in charge of the project, Alfred E. Smith, who wanted the Empire State Building to have Irish roots – so he deliberately delayed the project! Away from New York State, there are major celebrations in Chicago, New Orleans, San Francisco and Washington, where it’s expected that Taoiseach Bertie Ahern will be one of the first leaders to be received by President George W Bush. It’s expected that in the future Hollywood will be bathed in green on St Patrick’s Day, as a new glitzy awards ceremony rumoured to be backed by the Irish government is in the offing. The event will be staged in Los Angeles every St Patrick’s Day to honour directors, producers and stars who have promoted Ireland through their work – a project that will win the support of Ireland’s celebrated exports to Hollywood: Liam Neeson, Gabriel Byrne, Pierce Brosnan, Daniel Day Lewis and Stephen Rea among others. Further afield Paris celebrates with parties at the 70 or so Irish pubs that are found in France’s
capital and Montreal has a number of events organised by French-Canadians of Irish descent. There is rampant partying and drinking in Moscow (no change there) and other events, too numerous to mention, in countries as diverse as Japan, Spain, England, Australia and Mexico.But why does a day in March, much like any other, transform culturally and socially divergent peoples into one happy mass of pseudo-Irish party animals? The answer is that there probably is no specific reason for this phenomenon. One can only assume that, whatever their background, people are seduced by the stereotypical view of Ireland and its inhabitants: the perceived addiction to approaching life without a care while being able to seize the moment. Being Irish has become a euphemism applied to the ability to shake off reality for a brief moment and enjoy the craic. St Patrick’s Day provides the opportunity for the world’s population to exercise that ability – whether they are Irish or not. It would please Saint Patrick to know that 1,500 years after his death he is still responsible for spreading honest and valuable virtues to the masses that transcend global and sociological barriers. Then again, he’s probably too busy supping a Paddy’s in a celestial bar to give such thoughts consideration.