March 17, 2008

Lifting the Green Veil

Americans have a love affair with St Patrick’s Day that is very difficult to explain to the Irish. Every year, the city floods with Americans, here to celebrate the great Irish holiday and marinate in the authentic experience that is Paddy’s Day in Ireland.

In preparation for the reverse temporary immigration, the Irish generally leave town.

It is traditionally a religious holiday in Ireland. As it is also a national holiday, we have the day off work, so most people use this time to spend with their families, traveling down to the country for an extended weekend. It is only a beer holiday in the US.

But as the Irish have always been good hosts, they have created an industry around the holiday and thus we have a parade, a festival, fireworks display, and general controlled mayhem.

The city centre is filled with tourists, mainly American, but most of the European Union is represented, Dublin being akin to Europe what Vegas is to the US. The shops fill with foam leprechaun hats and beards, shamrock beaded necklaces, Guinness pint hats; all sorts of Irish gear for the festivities. People sell fresh shamrocks on the street for lapels. One sandwich chain has shamrock shaped bread. Musicians are out in full force, dressed suddenly in kilts, playing the old songs. If someone were to be drop shipped into the madness unaware, it would more resemble a David Lynch movie with an Irish theme than Dublin on a typical weekend.

The tourists come and watch the French light show, ooo and ahhh over the Chinese fireworks and wonder why their American beer isn’t green. They pilgrimage to the Guinness factory and then on to the Jameson distillery, stopping between the two for a pint of Guinness and maybe some Irish stew. The parade features more international groups than Irish groups, although some of them are actually living in Dublin at the moment. The Dublin Sikh group, for instance put on an impressive display of saris and sitars.

But none of this is a genuine experience. It’s all for the tourists.

The Irish experience of St Patrick’s Day is far more urbane. It generally features 6 Nations rugby and the Gaelic hurling finals. Pick your sport and head to your local for a pint to watch the match, but it’s not more than one would normally do. Some will wear fresh shamrocks in their button holes. Other than this year, most of the senior generation would be found at Mass at some point during the day. It is a quiet holiday, but it definitely a holiday. And ironically, the Taoiseach, who is sort of the Prime Minister of Ireland if they had such a title, is hosting the parade in Philadelphia. Not the one here in Dublin, no. He’s in the US where the good parades are being held.

In fact, the US has larger parades, louder celebrations and more anticipation for this day than anyone in Ireland. It’s just not that big of a deal. Not anymore than, say, May Bank Holiday weekend, first one of the summer, or October bank holiday weekend, which includes Halloween.

I remember years ago, when I had just graduated from college and was making real money for the first time in my life, my brother and I were talking about spending Paddy’s Day together in Chicago or Boston. Somewhere along the line, I pitched Dublin. Dan was a bit puzzled but he warmed to the idea. What better place to celebrate Ireland than in the Land of the Irish? Neither of us had been here and our families sport Irish heritage so it would have been a natural progression of ideas. That was nearly 10 years ago and had we arrived here, we’d have been sorely disappointed. The St Patrick’s Festival as I know it is only a few years old. We would have landed in Every Day Dublin to find the city virtually empty. No parade, no fireworks, barely any tourists. Granted, we could have walked right into the Guinness factory but the cool exhibition it is now was completed in 2000. It would have been an authentic experience, sure, but not the one we wanted or would have been prepared to meet.

In fact, the Irish government only set about changing that in 1995. The brief to the festival committee included getting the Irish population abroad to come home for it, outshining any other celebration world wide, and to provide “an accurate image of Ireland as a creative, professional and sophisticated country”. Well, they’ve certainly provided for the international attraction but a less accurate portrait of Ireland could hardly be drawn from observing the festivities.

Don’t get me wrong; I love Paddy’s Day here. There is no better time to be crawling around Dublin’s pubs than March 17th. People are really happy to be there, the mood is jolly and infectious, it’s hard to be in a bad mood when that many tourists are so happy. And provided you leave Temple Bar around midnight, it’s a great day out. It gets a lot messy after that. Only the Irish were bred for 12+ hours of drinking and still managing to hold themselves together.

So today is for the tourists and although there will be some Irish mixed among them, wishing them a good weekend, it will be decidedly an international holiday. I for one, having the day off, plan on celebrating like the Irish, authentically avoiding the cartoon holiday it has become. I have been on the Guinness tour 6 times. I have been to the parade and led the pub crawl charge on many a Paddy’s Day, happily I might add. But today, I plan to go to the gym and then meet a friend for coffee as far from the city centre as we can manage.

Have a green beer for me.

No comments: