St Patrick’s Day is an odd holiday for the Irish, one that even in its observance, seems a little alien. Less important to the Irish reveller than Christmas and less valued by the devoutly religious than Easter, our national holiday seems like an awfully big to-do grafted onto a minor feast day. This is probably because its modern incarnation is an American import. Though the patron saint’s day had been part of the Irish Christian calendar for centuries, it was Irish emigrants in pre-Revolutionary Boston or New York (sources differ on who got there first) that decided to make a day of it with a parade and citywide merry-making. It wound up back in the old country in the 20th century though, as with the Mexican Cinco de Mayo, it continues to be the diaspora in the United States that makes more of a fuss about it.
The time of year in which it falls is probably its biggest drawback: Spring has rarely got into full bloom in Ireland by mid-March and, more often than not, St Patrick’s Day is damp, if not uncharitably cold. In more pious times, the pretext of a respite from Lent was welcomed by a certain sector of Irish society though the Free State’s early rulers tried to close off that avenue of pleasure by outlawing pub opening on the day, something that was done away with in the 1960s (bizarrely the Dublin Dog Show was exempt from this prohibition, as a famous Flann O’Brien column once noted).
In recent decades, aware of the tourism potential of St Patrick’s Day, the government has elongated the day itself into a weeklong celebration, with all the requisite bells, whistles and inflatable branded accoutrements. Unsuspecting foreigners are enticed to book low-cost flights to experience the ultimate Dublin-on-a-Saturday-night experience. As it is a day off work, few Irish have ever refused it though it’s hard to conceive of an Irish person making any special plans for the day – there have been times when it seemed to me like a birthday party you are reluctant to go to but do anyway out of obligation. St Patrick’s Day may not be exactly ersatz as such but there is a sense that it has been borrowed from someone else.
Dylan Moran, “The Irish and the English”
But Irish identity itself is a rough terrain. The Irish are more sensitive than most nationalities to the way they are perceived, particularly when it comes to their former colonial rulers. One of the things most likely to rile the Irish is the suggestion of them being inveterate drinkers, even while many of us will freely admit to being partial to a pint. It’s certainly true the Irish are no slouches when it comes to drinking and alcoholism is a prevalent problem in Irish society. Alcohol dependency is one of the factors linked to a recent rise in suicide rates in Ireland. That said, this is far from a long-existing phenomenon; as recently as 1968 (according to the Gill & Macmillan Encyclopaedia of Ireland) 52 per cent of Irish adults were teetotal (something that is borne out on both sides of my own family). It’s certainly also true that emigrant males living alone in the US and the UK ran counter to these figures. Even so, whatever about the tendencies of the Irish to overindulgence in drink, they are not wildly at variance with drinking patterns elsewhere in northern Europe. Not that those patterns are healthy either.
But the Irish certainly like to think of themselves above all as festive. The hail fellow well met is what many Irish aspire to be in their dealings with foreigners. Many of us have an insatiable yearning to be liked. But there are others among the Irish who cast a dark eye on this approval-seeking bonhomie. When Ireland’s football team crashed calamitously at Euro 2012 in Poland, our estimated 30,000 travelling support (of which I was one) received the consolation prize of being named best fans of the tournament. We all would have gladly exchanged that for an even moderately respectable performance from the Boys in Green but it’s probably not the worst thing in the world to be praised for going abroad and, far from pissing off the locals, actually charming them.
Nonetheless there was criticism for the fans from people back home and from non-partier-in-chief Roy Keane for blasting out a mournful rendition of The Fields of Athenry (an admittedly awful song) when 4-0 down to Spain, instead of turning on the team in a frenzy of boos and whistles. The fans, we were told, were only there for the ‘sing song’ and some people even found the all-round lack of olympian seriousness embarrassing. That is very much a minority opinion among the Irish though. Many of them sincerely believe everyone in the world loves the Irish; it’s quite possible we are indeed loved among those peoples aware of our existence, but it is equally possible the behaviour of some younger Irish abroad is causing people in the US and Australia to revise their opinions. It is also likely that an endemic eagerness to please for a long time stunted the growth of a properly adversarial political culture within Ireland as personality always took precedence over policy in election campaigns.
Another baleful slur is that of the “Thick Paddy” – it is one that is much rarer than it used to be though it did make a comeback last week courtesy of Jeremy Clarkson. This has its roots in a time when the Irish demonstrated their thickness to the neighbouring English by speaking a difference language to them. I can confirm that stupidity hasn’t been entirely eradicated from Ireland but we are less frequently the butt of jokes these days except, it seems, in Australia where, faute de mieux, the Irishman joke lives on. The irony though is that calculated foolishness is the source code of Irish humour. Where English comedy is by and large predicated on class, its Irish counterpart is based on strategically passing oneself off as being stupider than one is. (Another irony is that the master builders of modern English comedy – Sheridan, Goldsmith, Wilde and Shaw – were all Irish.)
From Thady Quirk, the ur-unreliable narrator of Maria Edgeworth’s Castle Rackrent to Father Ted, by way of Flann O’Brien’s The Brother, the stand-up of Niall Tóibín, Dylan Moran and D’Unbelievables and Patrick McCabe’s mercurial Francie Brady, faux naivety is the ultimate Irish comic device. This rhetorical sleight of hand is present in the inner voice of Leopold Bloom, in the earnest pamphleteer who narrates Swift’s A Modest Proposal and in the most famous liar in Irish literature, Christy Mahon, the would-be parricide of Synge’s Playboy of the Western World.
The archetype surfaces in Vladimir and Estragon and is even a staple of Irish political life, loved and loathed in equal measure – the “cute hoor”, a ducker and diver, someone with “neck”, shameless audacity and a Clay Davis-like profession in his or her own moral and intellectual simplicity. It’s quite likely this deceptive strategy grew out of encounters with colonial rulers and, more directly, judicial and legal authority, all of whom took the stupidity of its subjects as a given. You can see how a shrewd colonial would give that the run-around.
I prefer to avoid attempts to define a quintessence of Irishness, as for such a small country there is far too great a divergence within it. It remains one of the few countries in Europe where the rural identity is still as strong and as prevalent as the urban one. Irish people are less self-conscious these days about what makes one Irish – one can enjoy Gaelic games and the previously scorned “foreign” ones equally, you can be an Irish speaker and an outward-looking cosmopolitan (Irish-speakers are indeed overwhelmingly such), you can be Catholic and not blindly follow the church’s dogma on everything, as many will when voting in May’s referendum on marriage equality.
For all the maddening aspects of Irish society, for all the pernicious legislative issues that have yet to be resolved, not to mention the media’s complete renunciation of criticism of the government, the country as you live and breathe it is not all that bad. Even as unsentimental an exile as myself can click on the countless listicles posted online that profess Ireland’s putative uniqueness, overcome my initial cynicism, and nod in agreement that we do indeed pay an inordinate amount of attention to the weather forecast, hurling is the greatest sport on Earth and no hot beverage will ever in its wildest dreams come close to Barry’s Tea.