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This article by David McDonough was prepared for the March 13,

2002 edition of

U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Honoring, & Celebrating, Saint Patrick and His Day

My first trip to Ireland was almost 30 years ago. With

backpack and sleeping bag, I roamed the back roads of the country,

occasionally winding up in one of the larger towns to see some fort

or church or brewery I had read about. And so it was, that on the

night of March 16, I arrived in Galway, the largest city on Ireland’s

west coast; an ideal time and place, I thought, to celebrate St.


Day in true Irish style.

I don’t know what I expected, really. If, in America, I speculated,

St. Patrick’s Day is an occasion for celebration of the more


sort, what can possibly take place in Ireland on that most Celtic

holiday? I envisioned something along the lines of a cross between

Woodstock and a Babylonian orgy, with pints of Guinness instead of

bad acid or goblets of wine.

I was staying in a small bed-and-breakfast on the outskirts of town,

the kind of place that served a morning repast of porridge, two loaves

of bread (one white, one dark, with fresh butter and jam), a plate

of sausage and eggs (side of potatoes or fried bread on request),

all washed down with a pot of tea. Yet conscious of the fact that

I might need my appetite that day for more important matters, I ate

lightly on the morning of March 17 — I refused the fried bread.

I sauntered out after breakfast, cap at a rakish tilt, to see just

how Galway City celebrated St. Patrick’s Day.

The first thing that greeted my eyes was — not a thing. There

wasn’t a soul around. Not even an ordinary number of people that you’d

expect to be out and about of a morning. Puzzled, I reasoned that

all the action must be towards the center of the city, and on I


Still, as I got close to the hub of Galway, no one was in sight,


an 83-year-old man sunning himself beside a low bridge. (I know he

was 83, because he had the eccentric habit of announcing his age


every statement).

The people? They were all at mass, he told me. That made sense. A

saint’s day, of course. It must be after church that the revels would

commence, I surmised. Where and when, I asked him, would the parade

begin? He looked at me quizzically.

"The parade?" he asked thoughtfully. "Well, now, I believe

there is a bit of a parade on the other side of the park. For the

children. Do you have parades in America, then?"

I told this story to Joan McDermott, the lead singer of Providence,

a Dublin-based traditional band now making its first tour of America.

Her band played its first New Jersey gig last weekend in Pennington,

and will move on to the Union County Arts Center on Saturday, March

16. She says that my experience in the Ireland of just a few decades

ago was not unique.

"When I was growing up in New Ross, in Wexford, there would be

mass in the morning, and a meal afterwards," says McDermott.


there was a small parade, led by St Patrick himself with his bishop’s

costume, miter and all. And maybe going up to a field to pick


That was about it."

What? No rivers dyed green? No "Kiss Me I’m Irish" buttons?

Well, not then, perhaps. But McDermott, who works for the Irish


Music Archive in Dublin, acknowledges that things have changed since

she was young, particularly in Dublin, the city with perhaps the


ties to the outside world.

Since 1996, Dublin, mindful of the success of American St. Patrick’s

Day blow-outs, has held its own St. Patrick’s Day festival, which

has now grown into a four-day affair. It’s a government sponsored

holiday, with a parade of its own, lots of food, lots of dance, lots

of music.

And surely it has become the tourist attraction the government had

hoped; last year, 1.2 million people attended the festival. Over the

last decade, the "Celtic Tiger", one of the leaders of


high-tech community, has seen an economic boom unparalleled in its

history. Ireland, rushing to embrace its new-found prosperity, has

also embraced a rush to pop culture consumerism, and McDermott, for

one, hopes that festivals like this one may help Ireland retain its


"Oh, it’s a huge celebration in Dublin now. It’s not just for

the tourists, " she says. "You see whole families out —

they bring stepladders for the kids to stand on to see the parade.

But we’ve lost some of our culture with the prosperity of the last

few years, some of our traditions, and now there is interest in


it back."

While today’s St. Patrick’s Day is largely of American

design, the truth is that St. Patrick himself is a bit of an Irish

invention. That he existed is fairly well-documented, but after that,

the facts are somewhat misty.. He was born sometime in the late fourth

century AD in Scotland — or Britain, or Wales, or possibly France.

His name may have been Maewynn Succat. He was around 16 years old

when he was kidnapped into slavery and forced into a six-year stint

as a shepherd in County Antrim. It is said that the deeply religious

young man, alone in a pagan country, had visions which told him where

a boat was hidden, and he escaped across the Irish Sea to France.

He then joined the priesthood, taking the name of Patricus, and rose

to become a bishop.

The man was over 60 years old before he returned to Ireland, and is

credited with converting Ireland to Christianity. The pagan tribes

of Ireland used snakes as a symbol, thus the symbolic stories of St.

Patrick driving the snakes out of the country. It is also said that

Patrick used Ireland’s familiar three-leafed shamrock to explain the

concept of the Holy Trinity to the Irish kings.

Patrick is believed to have died between 463 and 493 AD. Just where

is a mystery; the strongest claim belongs to County Down, in the town

now known as Downpatrick. Whether March 17 marks the actual date of

his passing is also questionable, but as early as the ninth century

AD, the Christian calendar in Ireland noted a three-day feast in


honor in mid-spring.

For centuries, St. Patrick’s Day remained a strictly religious holiday

in Ireland, and as such took a back seat to the larger events of the

Christian calendar. Easter remained the most important week and day

of the year. It was, symbolically, during Easter Week in 1916 that

the rebels proclaiming themselves the Irish Provincial government

marched into Dublin and took over several major buildings, setting

into motion the wheels that would result, in 1922, in self-rule for

all but six counties of Ireland.

Had it not been for Irish emigration, St. Patrick’s Day might have

remained a quiet day of religious celebration, unknown in the rest

of the world. Yet it was natural that legions of homesick Irish men

and women, alone in a strange world, working as servants or foot


should seize on the one day of the year that they could legitimately

call their own. Boston, that port of entry for so many native Irish,

claims that its first celebration of St. Patrick’s Day came about

in 1737.

America’s largest St. Patrick’s Day affair, the parade in New York

City, takes place this year on Saturday, March 16. It began in 1759,

when Irish soldiers in the British army organized the first official

parade in the city’s history. The parade remained a purely military

display until after the war of 1812, when various Irish fraternal

societies took over. The fact that this and other Irish-American


began as military affairs, rather than religious, is another


of why Irish-American celebrations of the day differ so sharply from

the celebrations back home.

Here, St. Patrick’s Day became a reason for a race of

people who identified themselves as outsiders to stand together. In

"The Irish American Family Album," by Dorothy and Thomas


William O’Connell, later cardinal of the archdiocese of Boston, talks

about growing up in Lowell, Massachusetts in the 1860s and 1870s:

"To the chagrin of the mill-owners and managers, the workers made

the seventeenth of March a great holiday, and to their wonder, and

one might say their anxiety as well, the machinery had to be stopped

and the mill gates closed. When one remembers that this was not done

in those times even on Christmas Day. . . the full significance of

the event, I say, will be quickly realized. The Irish Catholics of

Lowell, by dint of vigorous, passive resistance, were beginning to

win their rightful place and to force a reluctant recognition from

those who hitherto had utterly ignored them and their human rights

as citizens and workers."

After the explosion in Irish immigration during the Great Famine of

the 1840s, and the number of the post-Civil War Irish who joined the

newly-formed police forces and political machines of the cities of

North America, the St. Patrick’s Day parade became not only a


but a show of force. The pipe bands and marching policeman became

as much a part of the tradition as the legend of the saint himself.

To this day, any self-respecting politician who does not make an


at a St. Patrick’s Day parade is asking for trouble. Whether he or

she faces cheers or a chorus of boos, he or she must be there.

Not that the religious aspect of the day has ever completely


The Catholic Church in America has always had a say in the make-up

of the parades. The late John Cardinal O’Connor of New York City was

frequently involved in an annual contretemps in New York over the

exclusion of Irish-American gay rights groups from the festivities.

Tom Slattery, columnist for "Irish America," and lecturer

in Irish history at several area schools including Mercer County


notes, "I think there’s been a trend lately towards trying to

bring back the religious aspect of the holiday."

Chuck Easton, program coordinator for Trenton’s 17th

annual St. Patrick’s Day parade, that took place on Saturday, March

9, notes that this year’s Grand Marshal was Monsignor Leonard R.


who has spent many of his 54 years as a priest in dioceses in and

around Trenton. Easton is proud of the fact that the Trenton parade

committee is also a fund raiser for charities, and gives annual


to area high school students who want to spend some time studying

in Ireland.

Where there is a parade, there is music, and so the tradition of


musicians and dancers entered the picture early on. It didn’t take

pub owners long to realize that the celebration could continue on

into the night. In fact, as club and concert hall promoters


with the swelling of interest in traditional Irish music over the

last 20 years, the celebration could be extended over the entire week

before the event. There isn’t a Celtic traditional music group that

doesn’t make a considerable part of its year’s earnings in March in

the United States.

But you might want to choose your audiences. The Chieftains, probably

the most famous Irish traditional group in the world, have been


to America for over 40 years, and always keep their dates open in

March. They played the State Theater in New Brunswick on March 8,

and will play at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center on Saturday,

March 16. Their Lincoln Center concert on St. Patrick’s Day has become

a tradition for Irish New Yorkers. But it wasn’t always so.

"Oh, it was a bit of shocker when we first saw what you do on

St. Patrick’s Day," says Paddy Maloney, one of the co-founders

of the group, with a positively Irish chuckle. "We started coming

over here in the mid-’70s. We would never play New York City at this

time of year. The green beer and all that…and the pubs were full

of bands of drunken kids. We’d play San Antonio, Texas, or


Massachusetts — never New York.

"But then we got booked into Avery Fisher Hall," he continues,

"and we saw that the people were there to listen to the music.

I’ve seen such an interest in the traditional music over the years,

and I think it’s changed St. Patrick’s Day quite a bit, in New York

and back in Dublin."

It isn’t surprising that America’s more secular way of celebrating

St. Patrick’s Day has begun to trickle back to Ireland. After all,

Ireland today has just about 5.5 million people (including those in

Northern Ireland), and there are over 40 million Americans claiming

Irish descent. In plain figures, the New World has the Old one


Just as Irish-American musicians and artists are having a strong


on traditional Celtic music and dance, the Irish-Americans have begun

to influence St. Patrick’s Day. In his song, "Two Nations,"

the Irish folksinger Robbie O’Connell writes seriously of the conflict

that can occur when an Irish-American, feeling that he is as Irish

as anyone, goes to Ireland and faces a rude culture shock. In


song, the young American is told that he knows nothing of the history

of what is, after all, a foreign country. The culture shock, so


just a few year ago, is less pronounced today, with American culture

such a robust export.

Chicago-born Mark Howard brings his innovative dance troupe, Trinity

Irish Dance Company, to McCarter Theater, for two shows, Wednesday

and Thursday, March 13 and 14. Howard has fought fiercely to establish

a dance troupe that isn’t just relevant for one month a year, and

he believes that changes in folk traditions are inevitable, and that

outside influences are healthy.

"In my childhood," says Howard, "St. Patrick’s Day was

all clay pipes and sly winks. But I knew there had to be more. I’ve

tried to reflect that in my dance. I respect the traditions, but I

also bring to my work the whole urban environment in which I was


up. I believe that Irish-Americans have become much more educated

about St. Patrick’s Day. The integrity of the Irish culture has grown

so much.

"And it keeps evolving. Its is cyclical, and it is morphing. The

Chieftains broke through, and now Bono and U-2 have broken through

— not out of London or New York, but right out of Ireland. And

we in the Irish-American arts bring our vision to the traditions,

and our roots in jazz and rock ‘n’ roll, those unique American art

forms that we grew up on. I believe that if you stick to your vision,

the world will come around to your way of thinking."

Or come around again, perhaps. It just may be that, although this

is not your grandfather’s St. Patrick’s Day celebration, it might

well be your great-great-great-great-great-grandfather’s. The music

and dance and celebratory nature of what we do now on March 17 sounds

a whole lot like that three-day feast from the ninth century. With

a little more Guinness, perhaps.

Wednesday, March 13

Trinity Irish Dance Company, McCarter Theater, 91

University Place, 609-258-2787. Mark Howard’s 22-member Irish-American

dance company, founded in Chicago in 1990, presents its innovative

repertoire. Collectively, the company has won 12 world championship

titles in team step-dancing. Also Thursday, March 14. $35 & $38. 8


Thursday, March 14

Annual Dinner Dance, Friendly Sons & Daughters of St.

Patrick , Hyatt Regency Princeton, 609-631-6178. The 16th annual

event honoring Irish Americans of the Year. Mary Elizabeth Fitzpatrick

Ivins is Daughter of the Year; Robert J. Burke is Son of the Year.

The Emerald Society receives the Community Service Award. Black tie.

$150. 6 p.m.

Trinity Irish Dance Company, McCarter Theater, 91

University Place, 609-258-2787. Mark Howard’s 22-member Irish-American

dance company. $35 & $38. 8 p.m.

Friday, March 15

St. Patrick’s Day Weekend, Pipers Pub, 1736 Route

206, Skillman, 908-431-4233. Celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, Friday


Sunday, March 17. Wear a kilt to receive a free pint. Happy hour 5

to 7 p.m. Music. Open daily to 2 a.m. 11:30 a.m.

Saturday, March 16

Janellen Farmer, Odette’s, South River Road, Route

32, New Hope, 215-862-3000. "I’ll Take You Home Again,"


Farmer’s tribute to her Irish heritage. Also Sunday, March 17. $16.

8 p.m.

The Chieftains, New Jersey Performing Arts Center,

Prudential Hall, Newark, 888-GO-NJPAC. Traditional Irish music led

by Paddy Maloney on uileann pipes, Martin Fay and Sean Keane on


Derek Bell on harp, Kevin Connef on Bodhran, and Matt Molloy on flute.

$15 to $58. 8 p.m.

Sunday, March 17

Janellen Farmer, Odette’s, South River Road, Route

32, New Hope, 215-862-3000. "I’ll Take You Home Again," Irish

tribute. $16. 7:30 p.m.

Paddy and the Pale Boys, Triumph Brewing, 138 Nassau

Street, 609-924-7855. St. Patrick’s Day show of high-energy Irish

rock music, traditional drinking songs, and ballads from the highlands

performed by Irish musicians. $5 cover. 8 p.m.

Tuesday, March 19

St. Patrick’s Day Celebration, Paper Mill Playhouse,

Brookside Drive, Millburn, 973-376-4343. Cherish the Ladies, the


Celtic music sensations, are featured, in concert with Dublin-born

vocalist Carmel Quinn, the First Lady of Irish Songs. $32 & $42. 8


Friday, March 22

Maire Ni Chathasaigh, Minstrel Coffeehouse, Morris

Cultural Center, 300 Mendham Road, Morristown, 973-335-9489. From

the U.K., the Celtic harp and guitar duo performing Irish and Scots

tunes. $6. 8:30 p.m.

Friday, April 5

Siobhan Kilfeather, Princeton Fund for Irish

Studies ,

Stewart Film Theater, 185 Nassau Street, 609-258-4712. "Gothic

Autobiography: Irish Memoirs 1798-1849" presented by Siobhan


University of Sussex. Free. 4:30 p.m.

Ronan Tynan, State Theater, 15 Livingston Avenue,

New Brunswick, 877-782-8311. The leading tenor and interpreter of

traditional Irish music, presents a show of songs and stories from

his life. $20 to $38. 8 p.m.

Friday, April 12

R.F. Foster, Princeton Fund for Irish Studies,


Film Theater, 185 Nassau Street, 609-258-4712. "Glory and Friends:

Yeats and His Contemporaries" presented by R.F. Foster, Oxford

University. Free. 4:30 p.m.

Wednesday, April 17

Seamus Heaney, Princeton University Creative

Writing ,

Richardson Auditorium, 609-258-4712. Seamus Heaney, the Nobel


poet who has been compared to William Butler Yeats and Robert Frost,

reads from his work. Born in County Derry, Northern Ireland, Heaney

won the 1995 Nobel Prize for the eloquent yet simple style of his

16 books of poetry and prose. Free. 4:30 p.m.

Friday, April 26

Cherish the Ladies, State Theater, 15 Livingston

Avenue, New Brunswick, 877-782-8311. This all-female ensemble performs

with a unique blend of vocals, innovative arrangements Celtic


Doug Cameron opens. $20 to $38. 8 p.m.

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