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Wednesday 23 January 2019

Paddy's Day: How we've learned to embrace the most international of national days

Irish March 17 celebrations were once cold and grim but, as amian ­Corless reflects, we've learned to embrace this most international of national days

Playing along: The Paddy’s Day parade arrives at O’Connell Street in 1979. (Part of the Independent Newspapers Ireland/NLI Collection)
Playing along: The Paddy’s Day parade arrives at O’Connell Street in 1979. (Part of the Independent Newspapers Ireland/NLI Collection)

Today, for the first time ever, the President of Ireland will be joined on Dublin's St Patrick's Day viewing stand by an international guest of honour. That guest is Mark Hamill of the Skellig Skywalkers.

The Star Wars star tweeted that he was looking forward to meeting the President and drowning the shamrock with "a mug of delicious green milk". As he ponders running for a second term, Michael D might be dwelling on a pledge made by Taoiseach Enda Kenny last St Patrick's week. The departing Taoiseach pledged to honour Ireland's diaspora with something more lasting than a knees-up. The Government would hold a referendum to give Irish emigrants the vote in presidential elections. Last September, his successor Leo Varadkar told the Dáil that the vote was set for June 2018.

But what if St Patrick's Day is all about consequence-free blarney? Its unique selling point that makes it the most international of national days, is that anything goes. For brave, foolhardy Luke Skywalker, it's about slurping green milk. For millions from Chicago to Tampa, it's about dying the waterways green. In Singapore, I once joined a huge St Patrick's Day throng to cheer six passing bands, all in Scots tartan, belting out a non-Irish repertoire and saving their best moves for a stirring 'Flower of Scotland'. St Patrick's Day has much in common with the institution that made it a holy day of obligation, but only on 32,000 square miles of the earth. As Fr Ted reflected: "That's the great thing about Catholicism. It's so vague and no one really knows what it's about."

In two decades, St Patrick's Day here has been made over from a dour Soviet-style drudge of tractors, goosebumped Irish dancers and hailstones, into a joyous fiesta more in keeping with Monserrat or New Orleans.

Taxidermied veterans

Our belated catch-up was largely down to the fact that the post-Civil War state, fearful of stirring fresh insurrections, threw a wet blanket on the celebrations. March 17, 1916 had been a dry run for the Easter Rising, and with partition still an open wound for some, those in power felt it best to keep the national day low key. Fired up by a fashionable puritanism and US Prohibition, the State went one further and banned the sale of alcohol.

One upshot was that events granted special exemptions, such as the annual RDS dog show, were overrun with unlikely enthusiasts. While our leaders did their best to make Ireland the last place anyone would want to spend Paddy's Day, Hollywood stars lined up to guest at the three lavish parades put on by the promoters of the Irish Sweeps. Rolling in cash from their global superlottery that was illegal everywhere except Ireland, the promoters put on lavish pageants involving elephants, futuristic racing cars and aircraft, and celebrities galore. For one parade, every store on Dawson Street was fitted with a towering false front in imitation of Manhattan's fast-rising skyline.

As Ireland entered the 1970s, the annual parade past the GPO still resembled May Day in Moscow, only without the dramatic military hardware trundling past the taxidermied revolutionary veterans. But a new age was about to take off, thanks to the global-shrinking caused by jet travel.

Ireland's top politicians could now make the great escape to balmy, fun-filled places for St Patrick's Day, while their lower ranks discovered the benefits to the country of town-twinning expeditions all year round. Cork's good burghers introduced the noble concept of town twinning in 1969, modestly at first by getting themselves sent to nearby Coventry. Today, Cork belongs to a family of septuplets including glamorous San Francisco, Rennes and Shanghai, while even Templemore (population 1,943) has sisters in France and Italy. But while fact-finding missions to strengthen existing ties and to size up potential new siblings are left to lowly councillors, heading up a St Patrick's Week delegation to one of the world's great cities, in the national interest, is a sign that a politician has made it. But watching the TV postcards from our leaders in short sleeves under blue skies, it's hard not to wonder if we wouldn't have a better time here if we switched Paddy's Day to a more kindly month, May for instance.

That's what we did in 2001 when foot and mouth brought Ireland to a standstill. When the Dublin parade belatedly took place on a sun-blessed day in late May, it drew the biggest turnout ever, bringing out 1.2 million in their summer gear. In theory, it could be moved. The Catholic Church shunts it whenever it interrupts Easter Week. In 2008, for instance, the Church observed it on March 14.

In practice, it can't be moved. By various happenstances of history, it became embedded where the Irish settled at a time when the world was less cosmopolitan. Today, the next biggest ethnic blowout in the US, Columbus Day, is tethered to the second Monday of October, a long weekend causing minimal disruption. Uniquely, March 17 means a party no matter what day of the week it falls (bar Sunday) and no matter what the disruption. If we were to move it to suit us better here, the many who envy and resent Ireland's sweetheart deal would spare no effort in reeling St Patrick back into the pack.

Hailstones, goosebumps and all, March 17 is part of what we are.

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