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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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
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
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.
University Place, 609-258-2787. Mark Howard’s 22-member Irish-American
dance company. $35 & $38. 8 p.m.
Friday, March 15
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
32, New Hope, 215-862-3000. "I’ll Take You Home Again,"
Farmer’s tribute to her Irish heritage. Also Sunday, March 17. $16.
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
32, New Hope, 215-862-3000. "I’ll Take You Home Again," Irish
tribute. $16. 7:30 p.m.
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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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