Celebrating all things Irish goes global on St Patrick's Day

From The Angelus to our relationship with the cupla focail, we are a unique nation, writes Damian Corless.

As St Patrick’s Day trundles around again, our politicians will dutifully fly off to the warm corners of the globe armed with their portfolios of Ireland’s Unique Selling Points in the hope of drumming up inward investment, tourism, or at least a photo opportunity.

There are indeed many unique points to Ireland, though not all of them have much sales potential abroad.

Take our national day itself. 

There is a proven mathematical formula showing that the St Patrick’s Day experience improves in direct proportion to distance from Ireland. 

It is that most international of national days, celebrated from Barcelona to Buenos Aires and from Singapore to San Francisco. 

Notably, what those places tend to share each March 17 are the pleasant conditions perfect for throwing a street party.

Here it’s different. There’s an old saying that March comes in like a lion, and the Irish winter often lurks in the long grass to give us a good mauling at the first glimpse of a visiting majorette.

Does St Patrick’s Day have to be on March 17? Couldn’t we reschedule? 

That’s just what we did in 2001 when foot and mouth brought the country to a standstill. 

When the capital’s parade belatedly took place on a balmy day in late May it drew the biggest turnout ever of 1.2m.

The problem is that even if we moved St Patrick’s Day to make it less of an endurance test for ourselves, the rest of the world would snub our ‘StPexit’. 

It can’t be moved because it’s become such a world fixture it’s no longer ours to muck about with. 

We share it with too many lands where snow, rain and hail will never be a case for change.

Some places don’t so much share, as piggyback.

March 17 is a public holiday on the Caribbean island of Montserrat because it commemorates a failed slave revolt in 1768, which, by a happy coincidence ties in with the revels of the many islanders of Irish stock.

In Boston, the tacked-on feast doubles up with the original public holiday of Evacuation Day marking the withdrawal of British troops during the 1776 revolution.

Meanwhile, back in the real world of actually having to live here, there are many features of daily life that set us apart from every other society in the world. Take, for instance, that it wouldn’t be entirely unusual, listening to the Monday morning sports bulletins, for the results of Sunday’s provincial junior camogie playoffs to take precedence over the outcome of football’s World Cup final.

And sticking with aspects of the Irish media that catch the attention of foreign visitors, there’s the ever-present chance that a cupla focail will leap out to catch them unaware. 

Their taxi driver will have assured them on the way from the airport that there are over one million fluent Irish speakers here, according to the census, but after a few days in the country they begin wondering why all these Gaeilgeoirs seem to be avoiding them. 

The only logical explanation must be that vast numbers of emigrants return home every few years just to fill in the census form, just as many fly in to vote in elections and referendums.

Many of us residents wonder much the same thing. Radio 1 patriotically switched its midday news bulletin from English to Irish in the run-up to the 1916 jamboree, presumably in response to public demand. 

The post-Angelus Nuacht is still with us. Why then, did the station undermine this move almost immediately, by having presenter Sean O’Rourke finish his show each day just before 12pm with the news headlines in English?

To have a dysfunctional relationship with our native tongue is truly part of what we are.

And speaking of the Angelus. Whether you profess any religion or none, hearing the bells as part of the soundtrack to your daily life is another mark of being truly Irish.

 There are other distinguishing features, often detected more in the omission than the observance. 

While a tourist in a service station would stop and stare aghast at a gaggle of young women in pyjamas queuing for cigarettes and Pampers, we don’t blink an eye anymore.

Of course, the distinguishing marks that separate us from Americans, Russians or Belgians have been ironed out to almost nothing by five decades of rampant cultural and economic globalisation.

Anyone schooled in the Ireland of the 1960s or before, will remember a time when our distinct isolated, separatist Gaelic identity was not only encouraged, but inflicted and enforced with quasi-military zeal. 

Back then our Paddy’s Day parades had the severity and joylessness of the annual May Day march in Moscow past the generals of the Kremlin.

Back then, one newspaper branded Fine Gael’s Oliver J Flanagan “the prime idiot of Leinster House” on numerous counts of saying daft and sometimes hateful things. Most famously, he claimed: “There was no sex in Ireland before television.” 

Ironically, in his own idiotic way he was right. The old insular, Ireland was banished by television. Let us give thanks.

Damian Corless is the author of Hopscotch and Queenie-i-o – A 1960s Irish Childhood, published by The Collins Press, price €12.99. It is available in all good bookshops and from www.collinspress.ie

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