How does a local spend St Patrick’s Day? We’re lucky enough to have author Felicity Hayes-McCoy to tell us. Put the kettle on – this is a good one.
I was a city child, raised in Dublin in the 1950s and 60s. In those days, for me, March 17th was all about ribbons, bright green ones, one for each child in the family, with a gold paper harp on them and gilt safety pins to attach them to our coats. They arrived each year by post, sent from the country by my grandmother along with an extra length of ribbon specially for me. My earliest memory of St. Patrick’s Day is of green ribbons bouncing on the ends of my plaits, the glitter of the gold harp on my coat, and a bunch of shamrock tucked into the band of my father’s hat as I walked beside him on our way to morning mass. The shamrock had arrived from the country too, packed into a box of wet, crumpled paper, still miraculously green and fresh despite its overnight journey on the mail train and a bumpy trip to our suburban door in a sack on the postman’s bicycle. I’m not sure why the cluster of green shamrock was reserved from my father’s hat while the rest of us wore harps and ribbons. But I remember my mother had a green enamel shamrock brooch with a pearl dewdrop on it, that spent three hundred and sixty four days of the year in her jewellery box and came out to be worn on her dress on St. Patrick’s Day.
The shamrock’s association with St. Patrick goes back to a story that every Irish child still learns at school. According to legend, the saint first came to Ireland as a slave, kidnapped from Roman Britain by seafaring raiders. After years as a shepherd on Ireland’s green hills, Patrick the slave boy escaped, made his way home, and grew up to become a Christian missionary. Then, as soon as he could, he travelled back to Ireland where he used the shamrock, which has three green leaves on one stem, to explain the Christian doctrine of the Holy Trinity.
The historical truth behind the St. Patrick legend was certainly more complicated than that, but in Ireland St Patrick’s Day has always celebrated Ireland’s myths as much as its history. The earliest St. Patrick’s emblem we know of is a red cross on a white field, for example, not a gold harp on a green one. But magical golden harps with silver strings sing with human voices in many Irish folktales and green is the colour of springtime. So, in displacing Ireland’s pagan rites of spring, the feast of St. Patrick literally took on native colouring, amalgamating ancient Irish myth with Roman Christian legend and, ultimately, adding a dash of nineteenth-century romantic nationalism to make the picture complete. (It took a combination of Riverdance, Hollywood and the Celtic Tiger to throw in the Irish dancers in sparkly nylon ringlets and red- bearded leprechauns in huge, wobbly hats.)
Now, in the twenty-first century, cities all across the world go green on March 17th. This year Dublin will host one of its largest St. Patrick’s Day parades ever, with seventeen bands marching along a 3.44km parade route, 1,784 viewing seats, 3,000 people participating in the official Festival Parade and a whopping 8,000 in the People’s Parade , complete with jugglers, acrobats, loudspeakers and all the dancing leprechauns that anyone could wish for.
But in towns and villages throughout Ireland many celebrations will be quieter, less hi-tech and more traditional. Last year at the end of the Dingle Peninsula, where I live now, dogs barked and neighbours cheered as adults, kids and animals paraded through the village street wearing green and gold costumes and waving home-made banners. They were accompanied by musicians crowded onto trailers pulled by farm tractors. Earlier, in the church, dust motes danced in sunlight as the congregation sang hymns. Over the gentle sound of the organ we could hear sheep calling on the mountain. Then, as the priest left the altar, the doors swung open and everyone streamed out of the church into the sunshine to the sound of whistles, concertinas, accordions and fiddles, all playing a tune called St. Patrick’s Day in jig-time. This year, come rain or shine, the same rites and rituals will take place all over again all over the country.
It’s many years since I walked to St. Patrick’s Day mass in the morning wearing ribbons in my hair. Looking back, I can’t remember what became of my mother’s enamel brooch with its little pearl dewdrop, or all those gold paper harps. But as I write this in a stone house on an Irish hillside, there’s shamrock growing green in the high fields all around me, fresh and wet and ready for picking.
Felicity Hayes-McCoy is a professional writer working in print, broadcast and digital media. Born in Dublin, Ireland, she lives and works in a stone cottage in Corca Dhuibhne, Ireland’s Dingle peninsula, and in a inner-city, former factory building in Bermondsey, London. She blogs about life in both places on her blog here. Her memoir, The House on an Irish Hillside (Hodder & Stoughton UK June 2012) has an official FB page where Felicity posts gorgeous images and all sorts of curious links.