THE scene was a pre-school classroom on Long Island, New York nine St Patrick’s Days ago. Helping my son Abe off with his coat, I got the rather bizarre and uncomfortable feeling people were staring at us. Turning my head, I duly discovered his teacher, her assistant and a few other parents all giving us a serious once-over. I smiled the kind of wan smile one reserves for these awkward occasions, hoped the child didn’t notice and wondered what the problem might have been.
“Is everything okay?” I asked nobody in particular.
“Well,” said the teacher, in the kind of concerned voice you’d expect her to employ when discussing matters of grave import, “Your son doesn’t appear to have anything green on.”
I glanced at his outfit and nodded my head.
“Yeah? That’s right,” I replied, marvelling at her powers of observation.
“Well, you do know it’s St Patrick’s Day, don’t you?”
“Eh, yeah, I was aware of that.”
“Around here,” she paused at that point in the sentence, perhaps to remind me I wasn’t from around there, “it’s very traditional for the kids to wear green on St Patrick’s Day.”
Glancing around the room, I began to realise the extent of my sartorial faux pas.
Abe was trudging towards his seat, an innocent red sweater bobbing amid a sea of leprechauns. Every other child was togged out from head to toe in green. The little-known 28th amendment to the US Constitution apparently dictates that on 17 March one of the 40 shades of green must be worn whenever humanly possible. It doesn’t matter what particular type, although under the present political circumstances Islamic green is probably best left in the wardrobe. The louder and more garish the hue the better.
Before me that fateful morning, there were children wearing shirts that were the closest any garment has ever been to what James Joyce described as the snot-green sea. There were girls in Kelly green dresses and fern green ribbons. One unfortunate tyke sported a fetching silk top that might most accurately have been described as chartreuse. Upon averting my eyes from the blizzard of green assailing them, I found myself still under scrutiny from the authorities. The teacher’s gaze remained unusually severe, the type of look that might more usually be cast upon some errant father handing over his son while stinking of last night’s booze.
“Eh, he doesn’t have to wear green,” I said, beginning the case for the defence.
“He was born in Dublin so he is, eh, actually Irish. He doesn’t have to pretend.”
I might have gone on from there to expand on the historical reasons for my son’s wardrobe malfunction. I could have delivered a diatribe about the fact nobody in Ireland wears green because we don’t have to, because we are actually Irish, etc. I might even have showcased my knowledge of the hagiography of St Patrick gleaned from Professor Donncha Ó Corrain in UCC more than two decades ago. I should have done something impressive like that. But I didn’t. Instead, I did what most Irish men under pressure from a woman in authority do. I slinked away, half-apologetically, wholly embarrassed.
This is the way of it with Americans and St Patrick’s Day. They have a certain idea about how it should be done and woe betide the man foolish enough to come between the natives and their fixed notions about celebrating Ireland’s national holiday. As a result, this time of year is a period of huge contradictions for the Irish here. It’s charming to see your country being feted at every turn and from mid-February onwards tricolours billow from the walls of houses in every neighbourhood. Yet, it’s thoroughly depressing to witness the outdated, clichéd and often ridiculous version of our nationality so many of them seem to exult in.
After more than a decade living amongst them, I’ve concluded that a majority of Americans are too obsessed with leprechauns to have bothered finding out that the national emblem is now a recently-deceased tiger. Still smitten with the fading radical chic of the IRA, they have failed to notice that the 21st-century Irish are more obsessed with the IBRC. They are paying tribute to a corned beef and cabbage-flavoured country, a place plucked straight from the script of Ryan’s Daughter rather than the upwardly mobile nation of Ryanair.
As a child growing up in Cork, I have vivid memories of RTÉ news running annual footage of bars in New York serving green beer and the Chicago River being dyed the same colour especially for the occasion. It all looked like such cheerful and exotic fun. From 3,000 miles away. Upon closer inspection, the sheer tackiness of the plastic shamroguery and the relentlessness of the mindless drinking is a little more difficult to stomach.
In an ironic twist, when I bought my little slice of the American dream in the winter of 2000 I did so in a place that hosts an annual parade incorporating three towns, lasting four hours and stretching for five miles. A minor detail the estate agent believed was the clincher in the sale.
The first time I attended this festival, I could barely stop myself laughing aloud. In between the usual quota of commercial floats, fire-department pipe bands and cheerleaders, there seemed to be an inordinate number of Irish-Americans wearing pristine Aran jumpers and black berets.
Proudly marching along, they looked like extras from those classic IRA funerals that used to clog up the dreary RTÉ news bulletins of the 1980s. I half-expected them to pull out rifles and fire a salute into the air like the boys used to do around the republican plots in Milltown cemetery.
More than once I checked around the corner to see if Michael Stone was hiding out in preparation for a surprise attack. No sign of the loyalist madman when you need him.
To be fair to Óglaigh na hÉireann, I don’t ever remember IRA members carrying shillelaghs, waving at the crowd, smiling gormlessly, and shouting, “Top o’ the morning to ya!” This phrase and its equally horrific bedfellows – “To be sure, to be sure,” “Erin go Bragh!” and “Begorrah!” – are regulation issue for celebrants all across America on the day that’s in it. That many of the marchers speak in an idiom already out of date when featured so prominently in The Quiet Man more than 50 years ago perhaps best captures how this whole charade really is mired in ancient history.
Two and a half centuries after a group of Irish first strode through the streets of Manhattan, the annual parade down Fifth Avenue remains the most vaunted and ludicrous of all the celebrations. Every buffoon with a sliver of Irish ancestry and a Ballykissangel box-set is allowed to march.
Well, just as long as they don’t carry the banner of the Irish Gay and Lesbian Organisation. The Ancient Order of Hibernians has steadfastly and controversially refused to allow homosexuals to walk alongside their compatriots. In the AOH’s myopic vision of Ireland, there are rivers of green beer, forests of curly red wigs and mountains of gaudy plastic hats. There are, however, no gay people. St Patrick must have got rid of them along with all the snakes.
The worst part about all this is I’ve lately begun to realise that, just like Christmas, the run-up to the big day is starting earlier and earlier each winter. The January sales were still in full swing when I happened upon a particularly awful t-shirt display in the usually inoffensive Kohl’s department store. The standard-issue slogans. Kiss Me I’m Irish, I Drink Because I’m Irish. Drink till she’s Irish! No sign of the badly-needed ‘Spare Me This Dreadful Crap, I’m Actually Irish’. Now there’s a t-shirt I could buy and wear proudly to the parade.
At least the local supermarket waited until Valentine’s Day was over to hang the shamrock bunting and put together its rather eclectic Irish food table. The busiest pizza joint in the world might be in Tallaght but according to the diktats of Irish-American marketing, we still exist solely on a diet of soda bread, potatoes and, of course, the ubiquitous corned beef and cabbage.
We like to wash this hearty fare down with bottles of Killian’s Beer (me neither) and for dessert we love tucking into overburdened plates of green-dyed, sugar-covered biscuits.
Three hours before our parade begins, I will spot the first of the tailgaters hanging out the back of their cars in prime parking spots along the route. They will have portable grills going and boots full to the brim with beer. Their stated intention – I know this from charmed experience – is to get as mouldy rotten drunk as humanly possible before midday breaks. Devout Hibernophiles, they do not take kindly to an actual Irish citizen refusing their offer of a tumbler of whiskey or a cold beer.
“We’re going to have to check your passport,” said one when I politely declined his slobbering entreaty to drink with him last March. “You can’t possibly be Irish!” Hilarious stuff.
It goes without saying, St Patrick’s Day is ranked as one of the worst dates for drink-driving offences on the American calendar. Things have reached such a sorry pass in Washington state that the authorities brought in a service supplying free taxi rides to revellers that night. In Boston, a survey discovered that most teenagers garnered their first experience of alcohol at that city’s parade. Such a proud ethnic boast but, then again, it really is about the drinking and all that entails.
By failing to participate of course, I’m guilty of some sort of treason against my nationality. At the very least I’m a huge disappointment to my stereotype. At ten past eight last St Patrick’s morning, I took a phone call from an ordinarily intelligent woman involved with the local soccer team. Her opening gambit was simple.
“I thought I’d call early before you get the party going and are making no sense.”
I’ve known her for years. I’ve been involved in the same club and attended several parties at her house. In that time, she’s never seen me with a beer in my hand. Ever. So how do I respond?
“Yeah, you’re right. I’m about to put the drip into my arm to start getting a buzz going any minute.”
Cue paroxysms of giddy laughter. Who knows whether she knew I was joking? What else would I be doing on the day that’s in it? Well, apart from looking for some hideous green tracksuit that the child could wear to school.