St. Patrick’s Day in Ireland

Fact & Fiction

Mr. Cronin is co-author (with Daryl Adair) of The Wearing of the Green: A History of St. Patrick’s Day (Routledge, 2002).

Across the world on Sunday, people will celebrate St. Patrick's Day. Whether quietly with their family, at a Church service, or boisterously in a pub, millions will join in marking the anniversary of Ireland's patron saint. St. Patrick's Day is without question the biggest celebration of a national day across the globe. In the big American cities, in Moscow's Red Square, in Montserrat (the only place besides Ireland to declare 17th March a full public holiday) and even in Nigeria, people bedecked in green will be proclaiming themselves Irish for the day. Because of its global nature, St. Patrick's Day has traditionally been celebrated with more fanfare abroad than in Ireland.

For many, their first image of a 17th March parade, would be the mass ranked of Irish Americans on New York's 5th Avenue, rather than any of the events that have ever been staged in Dublin's capital. Since the advent of the St. Patrick's Festival, first staged in 1996, Dublin has a series of St. Patrick's Day events that it can be proud of. But what does St. Patrick's Day represent at the beginning of the twenty-first century? Is it a celebration of nationality, an opportunity to convince tourists to brave the March weather, or something that the Irish feel that they should celebrate as it's"their" day.

The long history of St. Patrick's Day actually suggests that the Irish have embraced the event in the same manner as its diaspora. Traditionally the day in Ireland was one for attending Church, and using the break in the lentern fast to feast on food and drink that was otherwise denied. The first civic and public celebrations of St. Patrick's Day took place in Boston in 1737, and were organised strangely enough by Irish Protestant immigrants. The New York parade first began in the 1790s, and that in Montreal in the 1820s - a parade which holds the record for being the longest running annual event in the world.

Parades and other festivities on St. Patrick's Day were vitally important to the Irish diaspora in their new lands. The day afforded them an opportunity to state their presence, reaffirm their Irishness and to promote causes important to them such as Catholicisim, charity and Irish separatism.

In Ireland it wasn't until the 1840s that the first large scale St. Patrick's Day parades took to the streets. These were organized by members of Temperance organisations, and encouraged Irish men and women to foresake alcohol for the day -- an aim that many would not find against the very spirit of celebrating St. Patrick's Day. The only other major events in nineteenth century Ireland was a trooping of the color ceremony and grand ball held at Dublin Castle for members of the city's ascendancy elite: urban poor, Catholics and nationalists not welcome (although Countess Markevicz found time to attend the ball in 1911!).

With the founding of the Irish state in 1922, you would think that such an obvious marker of nationality such as St. Patrick's Day would have been warmly embraced by the new government. This was not the case. The only events supported by the state until after the Second World War was a morning Church service and celebratory Mass, and a march past of the Irish Army. In perhaps a move which was bound to provoke hostility, the government decided in 1923 to close all pubs and bars on St. Patrick's Day -- a ban that remained in place until the mid-1960s. The only place in the country where alcohol could legally be served was at the Royal Dublin Society's annual dog show --never have the pampered canines of Ireland been so popular!

From the 1940s, the day was reserved for an industrial pageant which passed its way slowly through the streets of Dublin. The aim of the pageant was to showcase Irish industry and agriculture and to encourage people to"buy Irish." The photographs from the time, which show the pageant being headed by the winning king and queen of plowing, driving their tractors down O'Connell Street and supported by as many as 60 fellow plow people, look more like something from the 5 year plans of Stalin's Soviet Union, than the cutting edge of Irish modernism.

The pageant was replaced in the 1970s by a Dublin Tourism parade. This copied the American idea of a parade, and saw as its major goal the boosting of tourism revenue by attracting Irish-Americans and others back"home" so that they could step out on the streets of Dublin. The parade quickly became staid, the weather always seemed poor, and for most people over thirty, the grinning, and often underdressed American teenagers are their abiding memory of pre-Festival St.. Patrick's Day celebrations.

In the mid-1990s the government established a committee to find a new focus for 17th March celebrations and were keen that any new event should reflect the growing cultural confidence and achievement of the Irish, while offering a positive and welcoming series of events for all.

That the Festival has achieved its aims is undeniable. In 2000 the four day event attracted well over a million spectators. Many of these were tourists, but importantly many were from Dublin and its suburbs thereby repositioning St.. Patrick's Day as an event that was there for the Irish themselves as well as the once a year Irish. The Festival has been symbolic of the success of modern Ireland. It has reflected the cultural vibrancy of U2, Riverdance and all those other recent successful cultural markers of Irishness. It has embraced the wealth of that strange beast the" celtic tiger," so that the events are all sponsored and the Festival as a whole is not dependant on government funding. It is also true that events in the North, and the ongoing peace process have reflected favorably on the reinvention of 17th March festivities.

But is it an event that captures the nation? Well if Ireland is now a land of culture, excessive fun, a good long night in the pub, fireworks and performance, then undoubtedly it does -- and what's wrong with that? However, step back and compare Ireland's national day with those of other countries. Sure, Bastille Day in France and Thanksgiving in America may not be such hedonistic fun, but they embrace the idea of the nation state -- indeed they are an explicit celebration of it.

Ireland on St.. Patrick's Day, as wonderful as it is, still leaves me questioning what is being celebrated. Is it an Irishness that is comfortable with itself because of its wealth, its cultural saviness and the apparent ending of an ethnic conflict up the road which had previously been uncomfortable to cope with and horribly measured each year by the scores of dead? Or is it an Ireland which feels that if it embraces all that the punters want -- a good sing song, fashionability, a sense of humor and another pint for the road -- ignoring the difficult questions of what type of nation state is being embraced and celebrated is ok?

While not wishing to advocate the excessive patriotism of the American model, is there not a place for a more considered and thoughtful embrace of Ireland as a nation rather than Irishness as a commodity?

How then will Ireland be celebrated this weekend? I know we won't see much that stresses Ireland as a place and a nation, but we will see lots of people having the time of their lives, some great spectacles, and probably (and unfortunately) some great humorist who thinks it's a good idea to be a little wee man in a green suit with a shillelagh.

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p.d. swiney - 3/14/2002

I found Mr. Cronin's article interesting, but I would suggest that an answer to his inquiry lies in his own work. The pervasive celebration of St. Patrick's Day over continents and countries with little or no connection to Ireland would indicate that people all over the world might embrace the idea of a beleagured, dispersed people who have maintained a sense of identity and accomplished that with a highhearted sense of laughter in the face of adverisity. It might be the idea of "Irishness" rather than Dion Boucicault's version of stage Irishness, that the world recognizes and celebrates.