Is it time to leave St Patrick’s Day to America and find an authentic Irish holiday?

The tourism industry doesn’t correct stereotypes. They just send visitors on to Killarney.

RP O’Donnell left America to make West Cork home. As he marks another Patrick’s Day here, he’s convinced we should leave the parades to the diaspora.

I first came to Ireland 10 years ago. I had never met an Irish person before. Like the rest of the Americans with me, I was expecting blushing milkmaids in woollen jumpers, and men who all looked like the Healy-Raes. But then we went to Penneys.

Americans grow up thinking that the Irish are all either farmers, farmers’ wives, Michael Flatley, women in aprons holding a bucket on a windy hill, or leprechauns. They think the Irish all wear tweed and green and flat caps, treat the shamrock as a beloved talk show host, stuff their pockets full of potatoes (they all still remember the Famine like it interrupted their Weetabix this morning) and are either in church or on their way.

And why is that? Anybody who actually comes into contact with modern Ireland sees that this is nonsense. My own visions of pale milkmaids vanished on my first trip to Penneys.

Self-tan covered an entire wall; it was ransacked. It looked like the women didn’t wait to get home, they just ripped the boxes open and smeared their faces with fistfuls of the stuff. Between their leopard print jackets and the men’s tracksuits, it looked like the 1980s and the Jersey Shore were going through an unpleasant divorce and flinging stuff out the windows.

Few Irish-Americans have ever been to Ireland. Almost none have ever met anyone Irish — their Irish blood comes from great-great-grandparents. So, how do they learn about their Irish culture? St Patrick’s Day of course.

St Patrick’s Day is a holiday for the diaspora; it has been from the beginning — and I mean specifically the Irish-American diaspora here. The first St Patrick’s Day parade occurred in New York, nearly 200 years before the first one in Ireland. It is far bigger in the States than it is anywhere else, even Ireland.

New York has celebrated the day ever since 1762 with thousands annually lining the streets to watch its world-famous parade.
New York has celebrated the day ever since 1762 with thousands annually lining the streets to watch its world-famous parade.

St Patrick’s Day is why Irish-Americans have such an old-fashioned view of the Irish. This one holiday is how most Americans learn everything they know about the Irish culture. And on St Patrick’s Day, they celebrate old-fashioned traditions. They aren’t celebrating Ireland, they’re celebrating their Irish heritage; and their Irish heritage ends abruptly with their emigration.

When they remember Ireland, they remember it the way they last saw it. Or rather, how their great-great-grandparents last saw it. When they celebrate St Patrick’s Day, they’re celebrating their ancestry, which involves pious people in tweed, eating corned beef and cabbage. So that’s what their holiday is. And, in a feedback loop, that’s how the next generation learns about the Irish culture.

This is a bit of a problem. St Patrick’s Day is based solely on Irish-American nostalgia. And if you leave anything in the hands of Americans, especially anything nostalgic, it’s going to get very commercial, very quick. Just look at all the live-action Disney remakes. The holiday isn’t based on anything real. If other holidays, like Christmas or Easter, get too commercial, they at least have a bit of substance that believers can point to and pull back the reins on. But St Patrick’s Day doesn’t have that. It’s a celebration of a mostly made-up, imaginary identity. The nostalgia that Irish-Americans have—it’s for times they never had, in a place they’ve never been, with people they’ve never met.

The city of Chicago takes the day very seriously and has turned the river green ever since 1962.
The city of Chicago takes the day very seriously and has turned the river green ever since 1962.

And when Irish-Americans do visit Ireland, and this is what they’re expecting, of course the tourism industry doesn’t correct them. It doesn’t need to. They just send them to Killarney. It’s exactly what Irish-American tourists are expecting. It’s St Patrick’s Day every day there.

Recently, there have been complaints (mainly from the Irish) that St Patrick’s Day has not only become commercial; it’s also full of harmful stereotyping. They’re not wrong. The holiday gives the impression that the Irish spend their days wandering around in a cirrhotic haze, punching every sober citizen they find. ‘A whiskey in every hand, and a sheep in every bed’ and all that. But the Irish decrying this — they’re trying to reinvent the day to be a celebration of Ireland. And I chose that word carefully; reinventing. Again, it’s an Irish-American holiday, for the diaspora. So, I say, leave it.

Let them have it, if they want it. Because between you and me, it’s not a great holiday. The whole day is just getting unreasonably drunk for an untenable amount of time, followed by waking up with a head that feels like it’s been worked on by an over-enthusiastic taxidermist. That’s all well and good (it’s like a spring cleaning for the mind, blast out the cobwebs and such) but that’s the same as any other bank holiday.

Also, St Patrick wasn’t a great saint. Sure, he drove the snakes out — but he left the spiders. And the bankers. He brought in Catholicism, yes, but look how that turned out. So, why not abandon St Patrick’s Day altogether? There’s no point trying to take it back; you know how addled Americans get when they think something’s being taken away from them. Let’s make our own holiday, one that properly celebrates Ireland.

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