Behind the over-indulgence and crass marketing associated with St. Patrick’s Day is a quintessentially Blue Labour affair. For the Irish community, celebrating the feast of the “Apostle of Ireland,” our patron saint, represents the enduring importance of family, faith, country, tradition and heritage.
That’s not always been easy. During the years of the Troubles it paid to keep your head down. Certainly if you had an obviously Irish name or accent. (Flattened, Anglicised pronunciations of Irish surnames abound to this day).
‘You’re British now,’ Irish children were told by their parents, as much a means to protect them from discrimination, which used to be blatant. “No Blacks No Dogs No Irish” was the infamous sign outside lodging houses. Some Irish comedians, especially Dave Allen, added to the problem. By specialising in gags about the Catholic Church, he validated sneery liberal assumptions about the peasant Irish.
So, as an overwhelmingly white ethnic minority, it was easy enough to disappear. St. Patrick’s Day was kept low profile. The marginalised Irish looked inwards.
That’s why there’s systematic under-reporting of the ethnic Irish in the Census (which has only recognised us as a distinct grouping since 2001 anyway). This, in turn, under-provides essential services for an ageing community facing a range of health and social problems. Often bespoke ones, it has to be said. The Irish face a higher susceptibility to genetic conditions like celiac and hemochromatosis as well as some of the highest cancer rates in the world.
Things have improved in recent years. The mainstreaming of politics in Northern Ireland in the late 1990s clearly helped, arriving, serendipitously, at the same time that a wave of Irish theme pubs hit British high streets. Now, the Irish coming to these shores are as likely to work in IT or finance as they are construction or nursing. It’s become cool to be Irish. So much so, that Channel Four thinks it okay to commission a sitcom about the Irish Famine. (It isn’t).
In many places, the day has become laughably diluted, turning what is, in essence, a religious feast day, into a gaudy, corporatised free-for-all. Chinese dragons compete with the obligatory leprechauns on ‘inclusive’ Irish parades in our big cities. Stalls selling German sausages and Euro-tat line the route.
But beyond this cultural illiteracy and those ghastly floppy Guinness hats, lies something genuinely unifying for a diverse community that now includes young professionals with no memory of the Troubles, along with a more settled, but still often isolated pensioner community. One that knows first-hand how hard it used to be to be publicly Irish in this country.
At its heart, St. Patrick’s Day still evokes a powerful sense of place and respect for the past. With its parades, music, drink and merriment, it’s a manifestation of genuine community pride and cohesion. The kind that politicians laud, but seem unable to create by spending public money.
Maurice Glasman would approve.