Reflections on St Patrick’s Day

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On this St Patricks Day, spent high among the Colorado Rockies some 4,378 miles from landfall on the West of Ireland, Im feeling very nostalgic for the place.

Paddy’s Day has become Ireland’s national holiday, a chance to ponder and celebrate what it means to be Irish. As someone whose straddled the two countries for the last decade, St Patrick’s Day is a fascinating event to observe, on both sides of the Atlantic.

Here in the States, the varied expressions of Irishness– the big foam hats, green beer, bagpipes, and diddly-eye– seem so hopelessly twee and gauche. “Amateur hour” as my friend aptly describes it. Like Bertie Ahern giving George Bush the traditional pot of shamrocks, expressions of St Patrick’s Day can often be cringe-worthy. Yet for Irish people these awkward expressions of allegiance must engender a sense of pride. What other country in the world could annually garner such extensive face time with the leader of the Free World?  Or have such a loyal legion of supporters?

In Ireland, Paddy’s Day didn’t used to be so important. Originally a religious holiday honoring Ireland’s most revered saint, for decades it was probably celebrated with much greater fervor abroad than back at home. But he holiday has gained in stature in the 1990’s, when the Irish government made a concerted effort to promote it. Perhaps driven by tourism concerns, but the impact was profound. With money provided by the Arts Council and other government entities. Festivals and parades began sprouting up across the country,  Local communities embraced the cause, proudly showcasing their own offerings.

For three years I attended Galway’s St Patrick Day parade as a photographer for Macnas, Galway’s renowned street theatre company. On many other years, my attendance was far more lackadaisical. I’d stroll down with my point and shoot camera in one hand, half read paper in the other.  By the end of the event I would invariably feel inspired.

Galway’s annual Paddy’s Day Parade provides a visual feast, and a telling snapshot of life in modern Ireland. In many ways Galway’s parade is the Irish equivalent of the fourth of July parade in small town Americana.  It is a family friendly event. In fact kids provided much of the entertainment, regaled in hurling attire, tooting their whistles, rustling pom-pons to the rat-a-tat of snare drums.

The diversity of participation at Galway’s parade is striking. Event organizers in Galway made a concerted effort to include various minority communities. As a result you’d see, there among the drum corps and GAA Clubs, pushing floats and marching in step, representatives from communities of Travelers, Nigerians, Polish Indians, even Hare Krishnas, Each of them were represented and expressing what it means for them to be Irish in today’s Ireland.

Living in Ireland over the last decade, I’ve witnessed firsthand one of the most profound periods of Irish history. With the country in such rapid flux, each year on St Patrick’s Day the country seemed to enter an extended dialogue about what it means to be Irish. From the heady days of the Celtic Tiger, with all its vulgar excess, Ireland experienced a dramatic fall from grace. Its now the country of rampant unemployment, emigration, bank insolvency, and IMF bailouts.

Lately Ireland has felt much more introspective. Through all the profound changes, the collective character of the Irish people continues to shine. While I wasn’t in Ireland this year to observe it, I’ve no doubth this year’s Paddy’s Day observance helped charge the batteries of the Irish people and re-instill a sense of identity and pride. Few countries could roll through such profound changes with such resiliency and good humor.

The good news in Ireland is that both shoes have fallen. The Irish are busy lacing up and preparing to walk stoically into the future. Wherever that journey may lead, surely it will be an fascinating one.

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