Get ready for one of the world’s great events. Unless you happen to live on the moon you’ll know that this coming weekend belongs to the Irish.
Sunday is St. Patrick’s Day, and in every far-flung corner of the globe you’ll find Irishness emerge in an annual affirmation of the ties that bind millions back to a remarkable little island that holds influence way beyond its size and location.
The St. Patrick’s Day holiday is officially celebrated in the UK, the United States, Canada, Argentina, Germany, Denmark, Mexico and Australia. It has also become a popular fixture in Russia. At the 2008 event a statue of James Joyce was unveiled in the Russian State Library of Foreign Literature.
The first St. Patrick’s Day parade took place, not in Ireland, but in America. Historians argue about its actual origins. Some believe the first parade was in New York in 1762 but there is evidence to suggest Boston got in on the act 25 years earlier.
What we do know for sure is that the 18th Century explosion of Irishness began a mood for celebrating our Patron Saint in a way that could not have been envisioned.
These days it is estimated that almost 35 million US residents have Irish ancestry and are expected to get through tons of corned beef and cabbage for their traditional dinner on Paddy’s Day (to the Irish there’s nothing derogatory in calling it that). Back in Ireland the food for the day will be good old Irish stew.
Apparently there are at least seven towns in America with the name Shamrock in their title, not to mention another sixteen called Dublin. Then there are the settlements of Emerald Isle, North Carolina and Irishtown, Illinois.
According to the Los Angeles Times, Casey’s Irish Pub, in downtown LA, opens for a non-stop St. Patrick’s Day marathon that includes a street festival. Around 15,000 patrons are expected to take part, and will consume 80 cases of whiskey and 200 kegs of Guinness.
The USA Today reports more than 100,000 green bagels were sold in 2011 by Bruegger’s, and that over this coming weekend 7 million packets of a green dipping sauce, known as Heinz St. Paddy’s Day Sauce, will be handed out by Burger King!
But let’s come back to my side of the pond.
Here’s the history bit. St. Patrick was in fact born in Scotland, sometime around the year 385. He was captured as a slave at the age of 14 and brought to Ireland to tend sheep. Six years later he escaped, studied for the priesthood, and returned to bring Christianity to a land he had come to love. He died on the 17th March 461 in a little hamlet called Saul, where he had built his first church, and which is a stone’s throw from where I grew up.
Patrick is associated with the Shamrock. The story goes that he used the little three-leafed clover to teach his followers the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. Whatever its background, it has come to symbolise Patrick and, to all intents and purposes, is the national identity of Ireland.
Wearing a sprig of Shamrock on Paddy’s Day is a must. If nothing else it provides people with the chance for a little tipple, safe in the knowledge they will not be frowned on for participating in an age-old tradition of ‘drowning the Shamrock.’
Patrick is buried in my native town of Downpatrick. Don’t listen to the counter claims of other towns which, understandably, want the privilege. His last resting place is in Down Cathedral overlooking the final stop-off point for the local parade in his honour.
I was born and raised in a warm, close-knit terraced estate in Downpatrick called Ardpatrick Avenue – the name comes from the Irish translation of Ard Padraig (high place of Patrick). I’ve always been rather proud of that, and can still see the Avenue from the balcony of my new home. I take the opportunity to glance at it every day.
Paddy’s Day is quite simply an event like no other. You’ll not find the Patron Saint of any other country enjoy the following that Patrick has.
So, on Sunday, wherever you are, whatever you’re doing, say a little prayer to Patrick.
And don’t be afraid to raise a pint of the dark stuff in his honour!