Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Erin go bragh


It's Saint Patrick's Day, and if a country could talk, today America would say, "Pinch me, I'm Irish," just as many of its citizens do entreat, whether the claim is legitimate or not. (Here I confess, I never did understand the pinching bit.) On March 17, you may as well just stick an honorary O' in front of your name, call in Irish to work, and set up a pint or two at your local pub. Sláinte! I am willing to bet that nowhere else in the world could you find a bigger deal made out of St. Paddy's Day, and I can tell you from firsthand experience (details to come) that it's a much greater event (by far) here in the States than it is in the "old country." I'm glad, actually, that this is so. It would seem a bit off-putting—not to mention totally out of an often self-deprecating character—for the Irish themselves, in Ireland, to parade so lavishly on their own behalf. Here, though, especially in my home cities of New York and Chicago (to say nothing of Boston, Philadelphia, and elsewhere), it's good that the Irish contribution to America's melting pot is recognized. The Irish literally built up these cities with their own hard-working hands; they have served them for generations with a strong showing in the police force, the fire department, and other essential industries. Skipping the criticisms I have of our country's celebration (and there are quite a few, believe me), I have the following American memories to share: First, no matter where you are, there's the "wearin' o' the green," the sea of green shirts, scarves, pants, skirts, tam-o'-shanters (wait, aren't those Scottish?), and various accessories. From early school-years, I donned the color every March 17; at one point, I had a tiny silver ring with a cloisonnĂ© green shamrock on the top, and I wore that as well. (I don't know what happened to that ring, too small for even the slimmest pinky finger on an adult's hand. I wore it on a chain for a while, but it's lost to me now.) Then, for years, each year I lived there in the 1990s, I watched the City of Chicago mark the holiday (on the weekend before), by turning the Chicago River a vivid shade of emerald green. This is done by the Chicago Journeymen Plumbers, who use a vegetable-based dye to intensify the already greenish color of the water—apparently, it's the same dye that plumbers use to detect waste leaks into the river, and the EPA says the dye is harmless to the river. Now I'm in New York, where the Big Apple boasts the largest parade going. There are the bagpipes, of course, the kilt-wearers and Irish dancers, the bands and clans and officials riding or marching up Fifth Avenue, following the bright green line painted in the middle of the road. There's Saint Patrick's Cathedral rising above it all, the Cardinal (Eagan, for his last year this year) watching farther up the Avenue with various bishops, certainly to remind us that there is religion in the day after all. And, since 9/11, there has been the moving tribute during the parade to commemorate the lives lost by the NYFD and other emergency responders on that day: 343 American flags, one for each sacrifice, breaking the tide of green with a fluttering red, white, and blue. But what about the Celts themselves? It may be natural for someone born and raised in this country to assume that if Saint Patrick's Day is such a phenomenon here, it must be a truly staggering event of grand scale on the Emerald Isle. Well, in March of 1988, I learned the contrary. I had taken a year off between high school and college—largely because I was sick of school—and the year was a tough one. By the time March rolled around, I couldn't wait for college, but I had to. I needed to get away from the daily grind of uneducated work and freeloading "friends" (who got me evicted from my first apartment). I planned a solo trip to Ireland for a month. There will certainly be other posts containing memories of Ireland, maybe some thoughts on the pre- and post-Celtic Tiger years. But here, today, there's really just one memory that counts: my experience of March 17, 1988. I was in Galway. I had just arrived there from an extended stay in Co. Sligo and had yet to make any local acquaintance. I figured, though, that there'd be no need to go looking; come Saint Patrick's Day, the whole city would turn out and I'd be swept up in a grand national to-do. It would be idiotic to ask about festivities, as they'd be loud and noisy and impossible to miss. This was not exactly the case. There was a parade, yes, which I did find eventually (I had a problem getting lost in the Galway streets, for some reason). It was small and somewhat pitiful. The weather was dismal: rainy and gray, as the whole month is in the country. The few spectators there stood under umbrellas, which added some much-needed color, though the umbrellas weren't green, or even orange or white. I didn't care about the weather, since being in Ireland was enough, and traveling off-season has become my preference. But I admit I was quite surprised and a bit let down at this non-event in the celebrated land. I took a couple of pictures, which were never worth saving (so I didn't), and then took refuge in a pub for an afternoon pint. As would always be the case, a conversation arose between myself and the barman, or else some local sitting nearby. I don't remember what we talked about, but I am not sure we even talked about the day's occasion. Saint Pat's in Ireland was like a good, average Sunday: church for the faithful, shops and government offices closed, people socializing with family and friends, much of this going on in private homes. Hardly the siss-boom-bah I got back home each year. So, another example of American excess? Definitely. Fun? Yes, it still is. Where would I rather be on March 17 each year? That's a toss-up. But wherever you are, it's always possible to say "Erin go bragh" (Ireland forever), and toast to your luck, the luck of the Irish.

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