Pádraig Belton

Shamrocks, green beer and leprechauns – the sheer un-Irishness of St Patrick’s Day

Shamrocks, green beer and leprechauns – the sheer un-Irishness of St Patrick's Day
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March is the cruellest month if you’re Irish and venture out of Ireland, breeding plastic leprechauns from dead Tesco aisles, mixing green food colouring with American beer, and stirring dull copy from hacks. Come the third week of March, the Huffington Post is telling us how to make green beer – handy for me as I live in Ireland and have never seen it. The Guardian tells us New York’s police eased public drinking and urination laws before St Patrick’s Day. The Wall Street Journal notes the current American craze for leprechaun traps, ‘a tradition that is unknown to many in Ireland.’

Now we have the seeds of #Shamrockgate. From 1901 until last year, a female royal presented shamrock to the Irish Guards. But the Duchess of Cambridge pulled out of today’s ceremony, leaving Prince William to do the job for her. It is, of course, Saint Patrick’s Day, that remarkable assault on taste and Irish national sensibility, perpetrated annually everywhere but in Ireland with green loo roll and greeting cards bearing drunken leprechauns, depicted more often than not in the act of baring their buttocks.

Most Irish people who encounter the phenomenon overseas are bemused and stunned. In 1960, a diplomat cabled from Boston to the Department of Foreign Affairs that his entire work was undone before his very eyes by 'shamrocks, green ties, caubeens, leprechauns and clay pipes.'

Two years later, another Irish envoy gripes to Dublin: 'Many Irish people would find offensive the green top hats, the shillelaghs, the green carnations, green beer, green whiskey and even green traffic lanes.' It’s Oirish ­– Paddy the tireless vaudeville employee, setting down a sustaining diet of green beer and praties for a quick shillelagh brawl.

I suppose the seamróg has at least got a distinguished pedigree. Wearing it on the lapel today dates to 1681. But as far as green beer goes, until 1960 it was nigh-on impossible to find alcohol on St Patrick’s Day, unless you were willing to brave exposure to moving trains or dogs at the Irish Kennel Club – and Guinness is of course black.

So sticking to the fact, what ancient Patrick shivers underneath? The Patrick of the Confessions is a humble voice, sensitive and prone to injury by critics, ashamed of his disrupted education. Patrick is an island in the darkness of British late antiquity — the Roman legions have just left, but the social order hangs on briefly. After his death, he went into politics – first by the bishops of Armagh, asserting primacy over all Ireland. Then the Vatican, his episcopal consecration in Gaul bolstering jurisdictional claims.

In courtly Georgian Dublin, the Anglo-Irish ascendancy adopted him. Then, in the second half of the nineteenth century, Patrick becomes more familiarly a symbol for Catholic nationalism. To this day his symbolic legitimacy is contested between Nationalists and Unionists (who being parading sorts anyhow, each have their own St Patrick's parades). Protestants serving the King paraded first, in 1737 Boston. Dublin imported the parade late, with a strict government charge to show Ireland ‘as a creative, professional and sophisticated country.’ That is, since none of the other parades were doing it. Which circles us back to green beer, and how the stage Irishman came to dominate overseas celebrations of St Patrick’s Day.

He starts in the Globe but gets going in American Vaudeville. Brendan Behan found this tradition a resource to be ironised and used for subversion. ‘I regard being stage-Irish as something of a trade like any other,’ he said, ‘It's something we Irish are particularly good at.’

Modern Ireland’s dodgy cousin, the greeting-card leprechaun, comes entangled with stereotypes of inebriated charm and unreality. But we Irish actually rather like seeing ourselves as feckless and charming. It may be that the last of the Uí Neill saw themselves carrying on with stiff upper lips, and the English as querulously emotional, hotheaded and unpredictable. But we grew into our garments.

Today however, in America, Australia and beyond, with adequate cunning an emigrant in exile can silence the more discordant notes of stage Irishism and take pleasure in the remaining consonance of a generous country celebrating Irish culture. A humble, pre-modern British immigrant would approve. Beannachtai na Féile Pádraig Naofa oraibh! (or, as you English might say: Saint Patrick’s Day blessing be upon you.)