March 17, 2006,
Some people cannot abide Christmas. Others have a visceral dislike for celebrating the New Year, preferring to retreat to bed with a bottle of whisky and a good novel. There are even those who find the rituals of Thanksgiving too much to bear. Then there's a much smaller club: the people who hate St. Patrick's Day.
Let me refine that a little, to make it clear that my dislike of the annual Leprechaun festival has nothing to do with bigotry or anti-Irish sentiment. As the old saw has it, some of my best friends are Irish. Indeed I spent five happily unproductive years at Trinity College Dublin, learning to indulge and love all things Irish.
Oddly, the cod Irishness on display in the United States is less depressing than what St. Patrick's Day has become in Ireland. True, the welcome rolled out to members of the IRA such as Martin McGuiness and Gerry Adams was always tough to watch. But if it was the price to be paid for having an imperfect peace process rather than no process at all then so be it. And at least the Bush administration has not coddled Sinn Fein as much as the Clinton administration did.
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 need to be certain that someone, somewhere, is not, secretly, 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."
The signs were there a decade ago. Slowly but irrevocably fine, honest, unpretentious Dublin pubs were "renovated" to look like the fake Irish pubs you might easily find in places such as Frankfurt Airport. Has there been a more dismal example of postmodernism than this?
One by one, pubs in Temple Bar dubbed Dublin's "Left Bank" began to be touristified, turned into crass temples to mammon that rendered them utterly unfit for their primary purpose of providing liquor and a forum for good conversation. Every rusty plough in the country was found and hung upon a wall to give a bogus impression of rustic authenticity. Fakery prevailed and bars that once smelt of soul were scrubbed clean and ruined forever. Televisions and canned music encouraged this, their ubiquitous presence ending the notion that you could go to the pub for peace and quiet contemplation. One by one these boozy cathedrals fell victim to the tourists' expectation of what a "real" Irish pub should look like.
Worse than that, if such a thing were possible, the enforced Paddy's Day revelry stuffs even the remaining traditional pubs with amateur and part-time drinkers whose over-enthusiastic presence proves suffocatingly claustrophobic (as it does, for that matter, on New Year's Eve). St. Patrick's Day not only indulges this sort of behavior, it encourages it. Even in the afternoon, the pubs become cluttered with people who are drinking for no reason other than the fact it is St. Patrick's Day.
Then there's the blarney, much of it fake, and all the backslapping bluster that is the mark of the phony and the bore everywhere. "But sure," they say, "it's just a gas, a bit of fun, like? Would you ever just get over yourself, take a pint and have some fun? God bless St. Paddy, eh?" Anyone who objects to this compulsory mirth is nothing but a joyless misanthropic begrudger.
Call me a joyless misanthropic begrudger then, but save me the hail-fellow well-met stuff for another day. Modern Ireland has more than enough to celebrate today without indulging this foolishness. I'll take a Guinness on Saturday, but not, thank you, today.
Alex Massie writes for the Scotman.