I’m trying to figure out whether St Patrick’s Day means anything to me at all, writes Caroline O'Donoghue.
It's St Patrick’s Day week, and once again, I’m in London. The parades are cancelled this year, and without them, it’s hard to know what the day really means. Even as a kid, it was hard to know what it meant. St Patrick’s Day usually was smack in the middle of Lent, and being children, we were obsessed with the idea of keeping Lent sacred, and figuring out what was “cheating” and what wasn’t. Could we eat sweets on St Patrick’s Day? If not, how on earth else do you celebrate, if you’re a child?
Has St Patrick’s Day ever meant anything to me, even as an immigrant? I’m trying to figure out — in my English flat with my English boyfriend and my English dog — whether St Patrick’s Day means anything to me at all.
1. I was in the pub a few weeks ago. Everyone was on high form, myself included. It was the kind of afternoon where everyone was talking with their hands, all big stories and big charisma. Suddenly, I felt I had to excuse myself. A sense of social exhaustion, of needing to withdraw and be alone for a few minutes, seemed crucial to surviving the rest of the afternoon. “Drink anyone?” Everyone said no — their glasses were already half full. I went to the bar alone, ordered my drink, and zoned out for a bit. That’s the thing with a pint of Guinness. Because it takes fives times longer to pour than a beer, there’s a moment for you to withdraw from proceedings, brood for a few minutes, and then rejoin your table with a renewed sense of energy.
2. It occured to me then that this was the real reason that Guinness is known as the quintessential drink of the Irish. It’s not the taste, the colour, or the texture. It’s the fact that it’s a drink with built-in alone time. The alcoholic equivalent of a fag break. It’s a small observation, neither important nor strictly true, but it made me feel closer to home in the moment. Being Irish is about finding ways to be alone in a crowded space, and conversely, about finding ways to draw a crowd in a lonely place.
3. And that’s what St Patrick’s Day is about, really. Lonely places. For hundreds of years, we’ve been leaving our home for far-flung destinations, usually without a guarantee that we’ll know anyone, or be able to speak the language. Yet we always end up gathering, clustering, finding each other. At San Francisco airport last September, I heard a married couple in their eighties bickering about whether they had to take their shoes off. I turned around to face them? “Cork?” I said. “Macroom,” they answered, and went back to bickering, without fluttering an eyelash.
4. The English people I was with were dazzled. ‘How did you know where they were from?’ “The same way you would recognise a Liverpudlian or a Glaswegian,” I said. “Their voices.” They countered that the UK population was more than 64 million, and disparity in accents and regions was inevitable. Ireland however, has such a small population, a smaller land mass, and is generally less diverse. How could an accent be that distinctive, to carry over an airport customs queue? Well, because it needs to be. If we can’t recognise each other, we can’t find each other.
5. And finding each other, I suppose, is important. It wasn’t to me, at the beginning. When I immigrated nine years ago, I was determined to not be one of those Irish people who only hung out with other Irish people. I was trying to get away from Ireland, both physically and emotionally. The recession made me bleak, and the Salvita Halappanavar story made me furious. Ireland, as far as 21-year-old me was concerned, could neither run itself well nor fairly, and I wanted nothing to do with it.
6. But, like Ross and Rachel, we were on a break. The happier I became in England, the more I allowed myself to miss Ireland. Sentimentality is a bit like a throw pillow, in that you can only afford to have it once everything else is settled. My friend Ella remembers the healing of the rift very clearly. “For years, you were afraid to say you loved potatoes,” she says. “And then one day, you arrived at my house with a big thing of mash and started eating it.”7. This sounds insane, but when you are young and Irish and in a new country, it is very important to not be too publicly fond of potatoes.
8. When I fell in love with my boyfriend, I think I fell in love with Ireland again, too. I brought him home, going on long drives across the country, introducing him to the bustle of Cork and the beauty of Kerry. I was crazy about him, and I was crazy about the country. I was tugging on gorse bushes and smelling the strangely coconut-y fragrance from the yellow flower. I was remembering words As Gaeilge and Celtic myths from childhood.
9. As the years went on, the shame and distance turned into vigour and pride. Joining protests for the London Abortion Rights Campaign connected me to other Irish women who were also ready to fight for what had killed Salvita. On the day the results came in, we all went to a party in North London, where they played The Corrs and Riverdance. Strangely, it felt more like a St Patrick’s day party than any real Paddy’s day celebration I’ve ever been to. Maybe St Patrick’s Day isn’t actually about when you do it; it’s about finding the other lonely ones, and making party out of it.