Thursday, March 17, 2011

Erin Go ARGH!

I've borrowed this headline from a 2006 article in the National Review, heralding a dyspeptic view of St. Patrick's Day - a view I share. If ever there was a cartoonish version of a nation and its people - and a not-too-flattering cartoon at that - St. Patrick's Day is that cartoon.

Growing up in the United States, "St. Paddy's Day,'' with its green beer, drunken driving, sentimental minstrelry and "Kiss Me, I'm Irish!'' buttons, was pretty much all I knew of Ireland. Imagine my surprise when I went to Ireland for the first time and found out that it little resembles the caricature I see in America every March 17.

St. Patricks' Day originated in Ireland as a religious holiday, not a boozefest. It wasn't celebrated with a big parade and boisterous demonstrations of ethnicity on the Auld Sod until the 1970s, when Irish tourism promoters realized they could sell an exaggerated version of themselves to foreigners - especially Americans, Canadians and Australians - who claim Irish ancestory and want to go back to their roots, however tinged with fantasy their voyage may be. Truth to tell, people do drink a lot in Ireland, where centuries of tribal warfare and economic ruin - save for one magic decade of prosperity, now well and truly gone - have given people reason to drown their sorrows in a pint. Overseas Irish, romanticizing the old ways, have deepened the Irish reputation for love of drink.

The first St. Patrick's Day parade originated in New York City - not in Ireland - in 1762, when Irishmen serving in the colonial British Army decided to remember the old country with a march. These days, every ambitious politician of every ethnicity, along with the usual gaggle of pugnacious professional Irishmen, dominate the New York parade.

My dim view of cartoon Irishness is shared by some Irish and Irish Americans I have met.

On one of my visits to Ireland, a bemused Dublin resident recounted his experience at an American college football game, played in Ireland between Notre Dame and Navy (the U.S. Naval Academy team). "Notre Dame brought a guy dressed as a leprechaun, who tried to organize cheers,'' the gent recalled, "thinking we would of course support the 'Fighting Irish.' But that seemed corny, and besides the players were black, not Irish. By the end of the game, we were pulling for Navy. Ireland has a maritime tradition, and we felt kinship with that.''

An Irish American acquaintance gave his disgruntled view of the holiday one March 17 in San Francisco over lunch - and, no, we weren't having corned beef and cabbage. "The Irish are the only people in the world whose identity is synonymous with drinking,'' he said. ''I find it depressing that people think they have to be drunk to be Irish."

"Are you going to hoist a few today?'' I asked.

"I am going to be at home with my family and have one shot of Jameson's,'' he replied. "And I'm going to avoid driving on Geary Boulevard.'' Geary is a busy street in San Francisco thick in spots with Irish pubs - they're always swarmed with loudly inebriated revelers on March 17.

Another friend, a former bartender, told me there were two holidays he really dreaded when he was working behind the bar: New Year's Eve and St. Patrick's Day. "It's amateur hour,'' he said. "Everyone thinks they have to get hammered.''

There is one difference between the two holidays, though. On New Year's Eve, everyone, regardless of background, can play the fool. On St. Patrick's Day, tomfoolery is associated with stereotypes of just one people - stereotypes more lovingly nurtured abroad than back home in Ireland.

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