Tomorrow is St Patrick’s Day, and we all know what that means.
Well, actually, we don’t. Ask people about the correct way to celebrate the holiday and you’ll probably hear about something that sounds like forty comedians and a troupe of strippers having a riot in a brewery, possibly with the words “beer”, “fiddle-de-dee” and “potatoes” thrown in for good measure. So, in the interest of promoting cross-cultural understanding and not having to hear anyone say “fiddle-de-dee potatoes” at me – a phrase about as Irish as saying Fosters is the Australian for beer, by the way – here’s a quick guide.
St Patrick’s Day occurs on March 17th and is the Irish national day. It’s believed to have celebrated by the Irish since the ninth century. The real Saint Patrick, patron saint of Ireland, would probably be somewhat bemused by all this mentioning of green and beer and potatoes. The original colour associated with him was blue and the only written records he left behind him, the Confessio and the Letter to Coroticus, are not filled with either lavish descriptions of tuber-based cuisine nor playing drinking games until 2am.
When he was not driving the snakes out of Ireland – the pleasant way of saying he got rid of the pagans – Patrick was a bit of an old booklover himself who preached piety and learning in equal measure. His influence is partly credited with instilling Ireland with a sense of literacy and learning that encouraged Ireland to become “the isle of saints and scholars”. This is a point of pride for many Irish people – we are, after all, a nation who live in a country where literature and art are exempt from tax so books are GST free – and some have gone so far as to claim we are responsible for keeping libraries and literature alive through the dark ages.
Thomas Cahill’s modestly named, “How The Irish Saved Civilization” describes how Irish monks and scribes copied and preserved the manuscripts of Greek and Latin writers, both pagan and Christian, maintaining the records of Western civilization while Europe was being overrun during the dark ages. He argues they preserved Western culture and allowed it to be reintroduced to the continent when the barbarians finally got bored and buggered off. So if you are looking for an Irish activity to do on St Patrick’s Day, you could do worse than read a good book.
Quieter activities like reading might suit an Australian take on the day better – St Patrick’s Day isn’t a public holiday over here, so celebrations are usually held on the Sunday closest to it. But make sure you don’t miss out completely because – speaking as an Irishwoman who has done the day in many places – Australia usually throws a great bash. In Sydney, for example, their St Patrick’s Day Parade has passed its thirtieth year and ends with one hell of a party in Hyde Park. Celebrations have been going on in Sydney for as long as there have been Irish here. The first recorded party was in 1810, when a dinner was organised for the convicts under the employ of the governor of the city.
It might have started with a dinner, but it got bigger – and noisier – fast. In 1895, Sydney’s archbishop Cardinal Moran, an Irishman himself, banned the parade because of the “tendency of marchers to gravitate to the pubs afterwards”. History doesn’t record whether this stopped them going to the pub altogether, or whether with nothing to distract them they just went there earlier in the day. But to the pub all Patrick’s Day celebrations will doubtless go, so be ready to put down your book and have a pint with friends at some stage because the other thing that the day is definately about is community and socialising.
While you are there, please remember that it’s never Patty’s day (that’s a hamburger) or St Pat’s, and that if your beer is green that probably means it has gone off. If you want to celebrate St Patrick’s Day exactly like the Irish, here’s how to do it. Wear a bit of emerald green, have a drink with your friends and a sing-along in the pub. That’s about it.
And, as we say in Irish, Lá ‘le Pádraig sona daoibh go léir – a happy St Patrick’s day to you all.