Sunday, March 16, 2014

'If there is a proper way to celebrate St Patrick’s Day, it is this:'

St Patrick's Day Celebrated In Auckland

Don't let the cynics and puritans ruin your St Patrick's Day | Padraig Reidy | Comment is free

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'If there is a proper way to celebrate St Patrick’s Day, it is this: out of the country, paying too much for badly poured Guinness in a crowded pub [listening to a] bad Pogues rip-off band.' Photograph: Hannah Johnston/Getty Images
What are you doing for St Patrick's Day? Solemnly convening with your inner Celtic spirit, perhaps through the medium of an Enya CD? Or will you achieve that higher state of Gaelicness by digging out your novelty hat and fake beard and heading on down to your nearest O'Neill's to pretend you like stout and the Pogues for a night?
I'll be … well, I still don't know. I should head to Trafalgar Square for the St Patrick's Day festival. They've got good people on. Comedian Roisin Conaty, for example, and the cast of West End show The Commitments. And Riverdance! Actual Riverdance!
Plus, of course, the aforementioned wacky hats, identity tourists, and the deadly serious pursuit of the mythical "craic" facilitated by pints and pints and pints of "the black stuff".
We've tended in recent years to blame this boozy craic-hunting on the drinks companies. Or, specifically, on one particular drinks company: Diageo, the people behind Guinness, Jameson's whiskey and Bailey's Irish Cream. But highly successful marketing machine as it is, Diageo did not invent the idea of the porter-swilling Irishman (indeed, it's interesting to think how few of Guinness's legendary advertising campaigns directly address Irishness). We do at least partly have ourselves to blame.
Dr Marc Scully, a researcher at Leicester University and author of several academic papers on Irish identity, told me: "It wouldn't quite be accurate to say that St Patrick's Day has only got boozy in recent years – certainly there's a number of 19th-century references in Irish newspapers deploring the habit of drinking too much on St Patrick's Day. St Patrick's Day as 'dry' was a project of post-independence Ireland: the first committee to discuss a ban on drinking on the day met as early as March 1922."
The authors of the republic's independence weren't enamoured with the idea of doing all that fighting in the name of a bunch of ingrates who spent their national day pouring porter into themselves, so a new puritan identity had to be formed. Éamon De Valera's famous 1943 St Patrick's Day speech, The Ireland We Dreamed Of, with its comely maidens and "frugal comforts", strangely doesn't mention stout, whiskey or cream liqueur (or indeed the Irish Car Bomb, which is apparently a mix of all three.)
Pubs were actually closed on St Patrick's Day for much of the 20th century, such was the determination to make the day a solemn, sober one. And we've seen how that worked out.
Is there actually anything wrong with our national day being associated with excess? Perhaps not. But there is always a niggle in the Irish mind that we're not really known for anything else. The now obligatory publicity shot of "foreign dignitary with a pint of Guinness" is tedious, and makes one wonder whose benefit it's for.
That question also applies to modern celebrations themselves. The idea of a parade on the day feels distinctly American. Growing up in Cork, often the highlight of my St Patrick's Day was a green milkshake from McDonald's. Irishness sold back to the Irish, as it has been since the days when Tin Pan Alley hacks knocked up tunes such as When Irish Eyes Are Smiling to play for homesick emigrants in New York's vaudeville theatres.
And there is nothing wrong with that. Irish people are equally attracted and reviled by the notion of "true Irish" (fior Gael) that De Valera and others pursued. It's led us to weird places. Emigrants and members of the diaspora are resented, let alone some poor English chap who's put on a silly hat and is telling people down his local that he's "Irish for the day".
Perhaps we should learn to take the compliment. If someone from Sevenoaks wants to claim an affinity with Ireland because he thought Ballykissangel was quite good, why stop him? We should be pleased. No one goes round claiming to be fifth-generation Belgian, no matter how good their beer is.
If there is a proper way to celebrate St Patrick's Day, it is this: out of the country, paying too much for badly poured Guinness in a crowded pub while a bad Pogues rip-off band play a "punk" version of "traditional" (written in the 1970s) anthem The Fields of Athenry with English or American accents.
"Authentic" cultural events are for fascists. Embrace your entirely made-up identity this St Patrick's Day. To misquote that famous Irish song, brought to you, incidentally, by the same man behind If You Come From Yorkshire (By Gum, Tha's Reet Up T'Mark), "If you're feeling a bit Irish, come into the parlour".

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