'St Patrick’s Day has about as much to do with being Irish as Christmas has to do with Jesus'

As an Irish person in London, March 17 should be a day to celebrate all things Irish, but for Katy Harrington Paddy’s Day is as authentic as green beer

Katy Harrington at London St Patrick's Festival, Trafalgar Square, London.

I was born in Cork and lived in Ireland most of my life, although for the last six years, London has been home.

I’m incredibly proud of being Irish – in fact, it’s crazy how much I love my country.

I still get a rush of giddy excitement standing in the queue at Stansted airport, knowing in an hour I’ll be home.

When I’m crushed in someone else’s armpit on my daily commute via the Central line of the Underground, I close my eyes and try to think of lying in the dunes wrapped in blankets on the beach in Kerry, or the driving the winding road to Allihies and it calms me.

I love telling English friends who are visiting Dublin for the first time about the best pubs, clubs, cafes, restaurants and museums to go to and I have definitely bored a few people at parties with a monologue about the health benefits of a quick dip in the Atlantic, our superior air quality, or with stories of how friendly our bus drivers are, because it’s not just the place I love, it’s the people.

I’m telling you all this so you don’t judge me too harshly when I say I can’t stand St Patrick’s Day. Actually, I hate it. As an Irish person abroad, the ‘diaspora’ as everyone loves to call us, I should be ironing my green gúna and eagerly anticipating the ‘craic’ on Thursday, but I’m not. Why? Because St Patrick’s Day has about as much to do with being Irish as Christmas has to do with Jesus.

For me, St Patrick’s Day is National Lampoon’s Holiday, and we, the Oirish, are the butt of the joke. Green hats shaped like beer tankards, tricolour wigs, leprechaun earrings, ‘Kiss me I’m Irish’ T-shirts – our national holiday is one big joke that I don’t find funny.

Not everyone agrees. I conducted a short poll on Twitter asking a straightforward question: Does Patrick’s Day make you proud to be Irish? (the second option was ‘I don’t care’). 67% said the former, so it looks like I’m in the minority.

A cross section of under-40 Irish men and women living abroad in England, America and Australia seem to agree that away from home, St Patrick’s Day takes on added meaning, although that’s not always a good thing.

Graham Finn is an Irishman living in New York. He doesn’t think St Patrick’s Day is perfect but it does make him feel a little patriotic.

“I definitely have more national pride than when I was living back in Ireland” he says. Still, it has its bugbears. “There are a lot of cringe-inducing moments at this time of the year. Firstly, there is nothing more annoying than people calling it ‘St Patty’s Day’…where did that come from?” Secondly, he says, “watching everyone jump on the Irish bandwagon, in a sea of green and whiskey” makes him feel conflicted. On one hand, it’s “heart-warming” that people want to celebrate the Irish, but “the way everyone treats it as an excuse to get hammered” is belittling. This March 17 Finn will celebrate with a get-together of his closest Irish friends, “a proper fry-up” and “plenty of porter”.

The St Patrick’s Day reputation for excessive boozing is also a turn-off for Maryse Fitzpatrick, who is from Laois and has been in England just over a year. “Personally I hate it at home” she says honestly. “It’s an excuse for teens to get blind drunk, lose all sense of human decency and generally cause havoc. The emphasis is well and truly on alcohol, it’s carnage by 8pm. I spend my time advising people not to go to Dublin when they suggest visiting Ireland in March.” However, she admits since moving away from home her attitude has changed.

“In London, you feel more patriotic. Once you move away you feel proud to be Irish,” even if it is, as she describes “an excuse [for the English] to shout ‘potato’ at you for the day.”

Brendan McKeon left Dublin for Melbourne over two years ago.

“I was always a fan of Paddy’s Day” he says, and he feels particularly proud when landmarks around the world like the Eiffel Tower lit up in green for the day.

Yet, since emigrating he says he hasn’t celebrated the day itself.

“I avoid Irish pubs in Australia and on Paddy’s Day in particular. It’s usually just backpackers getting messy and when you actually live here you don’t really want to be associated with that.” Which begs the question, if all the silly hats and revelry isn’t for our benefit, who is it for?

Dr Marc Scully of the University of Leicester gives an academic viewpoint in his paper entitled ‘Whose day is it anyway? – St Patrick’s Day as a contested performance of national and diasporic Irishness.’ For the generation of migrants who went to the US, England and Australia before us, Scully says St Patrick’s Day took on a different meaning. It was “a historically important means of community solidarity in an often hostile environment”.

For second generation Irish people, he says it was closely associated with family celebrations, customs and memories. Scully says today’s ambivalence towards the day is “more prevalent among younger migrants who tended to construct communal celebrations as not being particularly relevant to their own Irishness and stress the importance of their own individuality in how they marked the day.”

This fits with what both Graham Finn in New York and Brendan McKeon said. Finn chooses to avoid the parades and spend the day with friends, while McKeon says a party at home, avoiding green beer with backpackers, is how he’d choose to spend March 17.

There are of course, those who are more pro-St Patrick’s Day and Eamon White is one of them. White lives in London, but has spent a few St Patrick’s Days in the States and unashamedly enjoys the attention being Irish brings. “I love it, particularly when I am in the US — they love it more than Irish people, and see it as a positive event, a massive party when anyone can join in on.”

The leprechaun thing, he concedes is “a little annoying” but in general he sees it as a happy occasion,“a party where everyone has fun”.

So what, he argues, if it’s all about the piss-up, what matters is that everyone joining in on the fun, regardless of where they are from and “everyone is invited”. It’s Sunday and at half past four, London’s Trafalgar Square has gone green for the annual St Pat’s Parade and Festival. On stage, in front of thousands of people, a brutal pub band are murdering Johnny Cash’s hit ‘Ring of Fire’. It certainly feels like my personal version of hell – crowds, selfie sticks, burger vans, enormous queues for the portaloos and green glitter that will be hard to explain at work tomorrow. When the song finishes the singer tries to start a chorus of ‘Olé olé olé’ which goes down like a lead balloon, because the crowd is made up of Americans, Brazilians, Dutch, French, Italians, Spanish and only a minority of Irish people who were alive long enough to recall Italia 1990. Still, they all seem to b enjoying being Irish for a day, and so I leave them to it. I can feel proud to be Irish for the other 364 days a year.


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