St. Patrick’s Day
St. Patrick’s Day is a global festival. The great majority of the earth’s population, of course, remains blissfully ignorant of or indifferent to it, but at the same time it is celebrated on every continent and in every city in which there is a significant population of Irish descent, an Irish pub, or both. Compared to the other Irish festivals of the year the traditional rural customs associated with St. Patrick’s Day were meagre. Organised within a newly independent Irish state in the 1920s, St. Patrick’s Day parades asserted ideals of national community in the union of state and civil society, in the pre-eminence of the national church, and in the self-control of the citizens (facilitated by the mandatory closing of the pubs).
If in the Republic of Ireland, St. Patrick’s Day is both a religious festival and a national holiday, there are occasionally contradictions: for example the liturgical norms require the religious feast to be moved when it clashes with Holy Week (as last happened in 2008), while the national holiday holds its place in the calendar. Where St. Patrick’s Day is an ethnic festival, outside of Ireland, ethnic gate-keepers can assert ownership and insist on their ideal of what it means to be Irish and Catholic - which is at the root of the controversy in New York City. In Buenos Aires a few years ago, the popularity of St. Patrick’s Day as an excuse to drink excessively in the Irish pubs of the city’s financial district was opposed by the long established Irish-Argentine community with a poster campaign asserting that St. Patrick was the patron saint of the Irish, not of beer. In Ireland in recent decades with growing diversity, relative peace in Northern Ireland, unprecedentedly good relations between the Republic of Ireland and Britain, and the late lamented economic boom, there have been successful attempts to make the St. Patrick’s Day festival less monolithic, more playful and more inclusive.
In Montreal, St. Patrick’s Day was first celebrated in 1760 by Irish officers in Wolfe’s army, which had just conquered Canada. In 1766, in Vienna, the Spanish ambassador Count O’Mahoney hosted a St. Patrick’s Day banquet for other Irish imperial officials and generals, but this time the empire they served was Austrian. In that same year another group of Irish officers celebrated New York City’s first St. Patrick’s Day, and a decade later their army would depart in defeat, leaving St. Patrick’s Day to become, in time, the archetypal American ethnic festival. The razzmatazz of American St. Patrick’s Day parades has more recently provided the model for public celebrations of the day in Ireland where the festival today is unthinkable without this global dimension, which indeed tends to overshadow it.
Neither Ireland nor the Irish diaspora was ever ethnically, linguistically or denominationally homogeneous. O’Mahoney’s guests were Irish Catholics, some Irish speakers, some English speakers, some of Old English, some of Gaelic descent, whereas the Irish officers in Montreal and New York City were Protestants. Exiled in their hundreds of thousands from the 17thcentury, the Irish have been a constant presence in the formation of the modern world, as merchants, missionaries and soldiers. St. Patrick’s Day is also the national holiday of the West Indian island of Montserrat, where on that day in 1768 the slaves revolted against their largely Irish Catholic masters. St. Patrick himself was a slave. It was in that capacity that he first saw Ireland, abducted by Irish pirates from his home in a Romanized part of Britain.
St. Patrick’s Day is important to millions of people who have a variety of sometimes conflicting relationships and often tenuous connections to Ireland: priests celebrating the religious feast, businessmen in Shanghai, policemen in Boston, Dublin kids whose parents came from Nigeria, Irish-Argentines whose native language is Spanish, Irish gays in New York, soldiers of the Royal Irish regiment of the British army, barmaids in Irish pubs in Berlin, the family of the Irish prime minister (who never see him on that day). No tradition can pass on without tacit or indeed vocal interrogation, without the possibility of borrowing, rejecting and re-interpreting. That is constantly being done, often before our eyes, in the case of St. Patrick’s Day. The fact that it already belong to millions of very different people makes it the most inclusive of symbols, and augurs well for the continuing relevance of the festival.
- Diarmuid Ó Giolláin is a professor of Irish Language and Literature and Concurrent professor of Anthropology whose interests include popular religion in Ireland as well as folklore and popular culture in the history of ideas and of institutions.