Alex Massie

Wherever the Green is Worn

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So, yeah, Happy St Patrick's Day. Time then, to dust off this unnecessarily dyspeptic take from a few years ago:

When I was a student in Dublin we scoffed at the American celebration of St. Patrick, finding something preposterous in the green beer, the search for any connection, no matter how tenuous, to Ireland, the misty sentiment of it all that seemed so at odds with the Ireland we knew and actually lived in. Who were these people dressed as Leprechauns and why were they dressed that way?

This Hibernian Brigadoon was a sham, a mockery, a Shamrockery of real Ireland and a remarkable exhibition of plastic paddyness. But at least it was confined to the Irish abroad and those foreigners desperate to find some trace of green in their blood. It was, in the words of the great Myles na Gopaleen (a.k.a. Flann O'Brien) merely "the claptrap that has made fortunes for cute professional Irishmen in America."

These were the people that clung to a vision of Ireland, as he wrote in his wonderful satire, The Poor Mouth, as a place where a mother might take "a bucket full of muck, mud, and ashes and hens' droppings from the roadside and spread it around the hearth, gladly in front of me. When everything was arranged, I moved over near the fire and for five hours I became a child in the ashes — a raw youngster rising up according to the old Gaelic tradition."

A great deal has changed in Ireland, most of it for the better, since then. Sadly St. Patrick's Day is an exception to that general rule. Ireland's people have opportunities their parents and grandparents scarcely dared imagine; per capita income is now higher than in Britain and for the first time in centuries an Irishman need not emigrate to find success. When I first arrived in Dublin, in 1993, it was still the case that a visa to the United States was what every young Irish man and woman wanted. Now, Ireland itself is a magnet for immigrants from around the world and emigration from the Emerald Isle is a matter of choice, not necessity. The 1990s were years of dizzying, thrilling change; a moment in which a new Ireland appeared, casting off an old defensiveness in favor of a muscular confidence.

Yet something has been lost too. Prosperity comes at a price. Part of that has been the steady destruction of old Dublin. Oh, the grand Georgian buildings still stand, but whereas even 15 years ago you could still find more than just a trace of the Dublin J. P. Donleavy made famous in The Ginger Man today that Dublin has disappeared, replaced by yoga studios, juice bars, and the pressing fear that someone, somewhere, might secretly be doing better than you.

The cult of St. Patrick's Day exacerbated and reinforced this depressing process. The realization that, remarkably, the rest of the world wanted to purchase a bogus sense of Irishness demanded that the Irish sell it to them. Thus it is that Dublin these days has a St. Patrick's Day parade of its own, something it never felt the need for until recently. Tourists love it of course, and Dubliners have done their best to oblige them, providing, to quote na Gopaleen again, a "virulent eruption of paddyism."...

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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