Patrick and the Oirish

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17 March, 2005


Patrick and the Oirish
by Pádraig Belton March is the cruellest month for an Irish emigrant. It breeds plastic leprechauns out of dead supermarket aisles, mixes green food colouring with cheap American beer, and stirs dull headlines out of news desk writers.

Come the third week of March, and the Detroit Free Press again advertises the "Shamrocks and Shenanigans 5K", promising the spectacle of athletes decked "as their favorite Irish beer containers or leprechauns." The Miami Herald, under a headline of "Where to be wearin' o' the green," advertises all the local establishments purveying a beer of colour and alcoholic quality you couldn't order back home at McDaid's. The Kansas City Star challenges readers opening section E to test their 'mcknowledge with this green o'quiz.' South Carolina's The State, temporarily mistaking South Carolina for Bosnia, grills 'the chief leprechaun in the governor's press office, with a few tough questions about why an Englishman like Sanford would go out of his way to offer this special tribute [namely, a routine proclamation] to the Irish.' The solvent of green beer apparently confers a temporary reprieve to colour even terrorists cute and clownish, as when the Chicago Sun-Times, beneath a headline of 'Begorrah!,' reports Northern Ireland's Gerry Adams dined with a proud Chicago alderman and judge; Adams, fawns the reporter, had given up desert for Lent.

It is Saint Patrick's Day, that remarkable assault on taste as well as Irish national sensibility perpetrated annually in the United States with green toilet paper and greeting cards emblazoned with a dubious stereotype of a drunken leprechaun, depicted more often than not in the act of baring his buttocks. Most Irish people who encounter the phenomenon are bemused and stunned. Forty years ago, an Irish consular official in Boston cabled to the Department of Foreign Affairs that in a weekend his office's entire work was being undone before his very eyes by 'shamrocks, green ties, caubeens, leprechauns and clay pipes.' Two years later, another Irish envoy cabled Iveagh House astonished that West End Stage Irish stand-bys from an earlier century were

being revived before him on the streets of America: 'many Irish people would find offensive the green top hats, the shillelaghs, the green carnations, green beer, green whiskey and even green traffic lanes.'

It's not so much Irish as Oirish - that depiction of Paddy the tireless vaudeville employee, setting down his green beer and praties only momentarily to brawl with his shillelagh, or mutter semanticisms never heard in Ireland save from Americans imagining they are communicating with the locals. While of late New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles have wisely rid themselves of parades featuring all other ethnic stereotypes, come mid-March and drunken, pugnacious leprechauns appear go leor on Broadway. Equally odd, to hear most pubgoers of the nuclear superpower talk over their green Miller Genuine Drafts, one could be forgiven for imagining that the peoples of England and Ireland were still fervently at war, or that the Au Bon Pain in Harvard Square somehow still advertised that Irish need not apply. The story of how we got to this amusing state of affairs wends through Latin-scented ecclesial disputes; to Shakespeare, an Empire, and vaudeville; and a mysterious Britannic cleric whose writings provide one of our few glimpse of Britain in the century after the first Empire on which the sun never set extricated itself from its imperial commitments west of the Channel.

To clear away a few misconceptions about Patrick: he was not a mitre-bearing, green-clad figure, forcing the exile of a put-out garden snake from his Irish home between bites of corned beef. Episcopal mitres date only to the twelfth century; for green, try rather blue, the colour attached to saint and nation from the early mediaeval period onward; for corned beef, instead think pig products: perhaps boiled bacon joint, or a piece of boiled salted pork, followed by cabbage and come morning a breakfast pudding based on reconstituted pigs' blood. Ireland is not the Middle East. As far as snakes, the third-century geographer and grammarian Solinus notes Hibernia has been distinctly lacking in its snake complement since at least his time. Part of the reason for the island's herpetological deprivation derives precisely from its hibernian climate; though in 1876, a Phoenix Park employee named John Supple nonetheless managed to die from a python bite in the Zoological gardens; his family must have had a difficult time explaining that one.

We should also do away with leprechauns here too. As a self-respecting minor pagan character, An Lobaircin, a decidedly uncheerful fairy cobbler, would have had nothing whatsoever to do with a saint's day. He eventually merged, somewhere in the sexually liberated West Village, with the stage Irishman of whom we'll be speaking later. Seamróg or trifolium repens has at least got a distinguished if royalist pedigree-it is mentioned in an English text in 1571 and

an Irish one in 1707; its wearing on the lapel in connection with St Patrick's Day dates to 1681; and it was adopted by Protestants and Catholics alike of the Volunteers at the time of Grattan's Parliament in 1782, and by the equally nonsectarian United Irishmen in 1798. The Irish Guards, formed in 1900 by Queen Victoria to commemorate Irish participation in the Boer War and known generally as "the Micks", receive shamrock every 17th March from a member of the Royal Family. They originally drew Princess Alexandra in 1901, and until recently were festooned at the hands of HM the Queen Mum. As far as green beer, it was until 1960 impossible to find alcohol on St Patrick's Day, unless you were willing to brave exposure to moving trains or the dogs at the Irish Kennel Club-and Guinness, you'll note, is black.

So stripped of mitre, green cloak, and decorative garden snake, what ancient Patrick shivers underneath? There are two extant writings of the man, the Confessions and Letter to Coroticus, from which we know the sum total of what we know about him. These were embellished a great deal in subsequent centuries; in 807 or 808, Ferdomnach, scribe of Armagh, incorporates into the Book of Armagh a fanciful Acts by one Muirchu Maccu Machteni, as well as the oldest extant copy of the Confessions; this Muirchu, like another hagiographer named Tíreachán, likely wrote in the mid-seventh century. Modern Patrick studies probably begin with Irish-born Cambridge historian John Bury and his 1905 Life, who treats Patrick and his still murkier predecessor Palladius as islands in the darkness of fifth century British Christianity, and starts from the context of what is known about the late Roman empire in the British Isles. In 1942, Thomas O'Rahilly gave a lecture entitled "The Two Patricks" to the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, which demonstrated the works of Muirchu and Tíreachán to be fanciful products of the mediaeval imagination.

The Patrick of the Confessions and Letter's is a humble voice, sensitive and prone to injury at the hands of his critics, ashamed of his disrupted education, capable at the end of his life of pained defence against his detractors as well as humble thanksgiving to his God. Like that other author of a Confessions, his youth bears some painfully remembered sin; yet his exegete E.A. Thompson cautions appropriately "impurity - let us call it 'sex' - is almost (though not quite) as remote as humour from the word, and thoughts, of St Patrick." There has been a minority tradition inclined to view him as a proto-Joyce, and of all other modern Irish literature, too; both born at the periphery of a disintegrating empire, living in exile, inconfident, caught between worlds, and having recourse to stratagems, irony, and wit. Though amusing, this looking to Patrick for the wellsprings of all subsequent Celtic literature is misguided. He is simple, pious, comparatively unlettered, and as far as imaginable from the man who would create Kinch the jejune Jesuit and write a book with so many enigmas

and puzzles to keep the professors busy for centuries. One wonders, still, how they would have gotten on.

After his death Patrick went into politics. His development in this direction, along with his cult, were first spurred by bishops of Armagh seeking to establish their primacy over the whole of Ireland, and who conveniently cast Patrick as the first Bishop of Armagh. The Vatican would also support the cult of Patrick, as the claim of his episcopal consecration in Gaul bolstered papal claims to jurisdiction over the comparatively autonomous Celtic church. Later, Irish Protestants would themselves point to the lack of mention of the papacy in Patrick's writings to make the claim that he was not only the first Irish Christian, but also the first Irish Protestant (leading in the end to a number of surreal murals on My Lady's Road, Belfast; though lacking the level of high wit enshrined in the intramural exchange 'No Pope here' / 'Lucky Pope'). In the courtly Georgian Dublin of the eighteenth century, St Patrick provided a symbol to the Anglo-Irish ascendancy as they evolved a rather independent minded nationalism; the Crown responded by doing its best to co-opt the holiday and them, with annual dinners in Dublin Castle and George III's modification of the Honours system to introduce the Knights of the Most Illustrious Order of St Patrick. Having been passed around by all other political comers, Patrick would then in the second half of the nineteenth century become more familiarly a symbol for Catholic nationalism in its Home Rule and Fenian incarnations. Nowadays, his symbolic legitimacy is still contested between Republicans and Loyalists in Belfast (who being parading sorts anyhow, each have their own St Patrick's parades), and in New York by gay rights groups and the Ancient Order of Hibernians (giving birth in 1991 to the memorable phrase "two, four, six, eight, how do you know Saint Patrick's straight?"). Then, of course, there is the politics of support for Noraid, never very distant from the American parades. If stage Irish conceptions of green beer and sentimental recollections of discrimination represent two members of an Irish American trinity, the third is doubtless support for "the boys." In 1983, Irish Northern Aid Committee leader Michael Flannery was elected grand marshal of the New York parade; in 1985, active Noraid supporter Peter King as grand marshal made the entire parade about the IRA, from his opening speech to the end. The website of the Connecticut Ancient Order of Hibernians manages to link both to Noraid and to the Republican News, an IRA mouthpiece, making them under most normally applied standards apologists for terrorism, or something very close to it.

As far as Saint Patrick's Day goes, the festival of Patrick's 'falling asleep' dates at least to the ninth century, and receives mention in the Book of Armagh. It is first listed in Irish legal calendar in 1607, and added to the Church calendar by Pope Urban VIII in 1631. The first religious parades held (and originally by Irish Protestants serving the King) to commemorate the feast day were in the United

States, in Boston dating to 1737 and in New York to 1762. The dying of the Chicago river green (a feat done with vegetable food colouring) has incidental origins - it dates to 1962, when city crews had been tracing the sources of pollution flows with coloured dyes. A plumber's overalls were accidentally dyed green earlier in the year, which gave the idea to labour leader Stephen Bailey, who in turn passed it to Mayor Daley père. Dublin would import the parade from the United States only in 1996, with a strict government charge to "project, internationally, an accurate image of Ireland as a creative, professional and sophisticated country with wide appeal." That is, since none of the other parades were doing it.

Which of course brings us back to green beer, and how the stage Irishman came to dominate American celebrations of St Patrick's Day. In his working life, the stage Irishman began as a humble slur, rose to the level of subversive, was promoted to cliché, and then was put out to work in his old age as a marketer. Darby O'Gill and his Little People now sell cheerios. While the Oirish character's impressive pedigree derives from the Globe - see, for instance, Macmorris in Henry V and Captain Whit in Johnson's Bartholomew Fair-our current popular American images of Irishness derive in large part from Vaudeville. Emerging in the 1880s from earlier minstrel and variety shows, Vaudeville provided an urban form of mass entertainment to decipher the mysteries of immigration and industrialisation, and offer ways in its purview to fashion and control urban reality. The Library of Congress's collection on the American Variety Stage includes a 1903 opening film by the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company, with the promising title A Wake in Hell's Kitchen. Set in an urban tenement, the plot opens when a dead man revives to sip a mourner's beer at his own wake, providing an excuse for the mourners to begin punching one another. A Wake in Hell's Kitchen just might be one of the earliest surviving instances in the United States of that bellicose leprechaun which, together with the Stage Irish pidgin, continues to inform what passes for Irish-American culture, and its chosen greeting cards, football teams, and forms of communal celebration. A slightly better-remembered example might be John Wayne's The Quiet Man (1952), which featured a full complement of priests, alcohol, brawling, and a script admirably composed wholly of such prose constructions as "It's a bold sinful man you are, Sean Thornton. And who taught you to be playing patty fingers in the holy water?"

Yet there were some real Irish in the mix in Vaudeville. However, rather embarrassingly, they were more often than not wearing blackface. Irish and black performers nonetheless managed to influence each other, even if indirectly, with "Buck-and-wing" dancing emerging among Irish dancers and rhythm tap among black performers. One was Master Juba, who learned the dances of free blacks and Irish in the Five Points area of the Lower East Side

(today buried underneath Columbus Park in Chinatown), then performed the syncretic style of dance in London in 1848; finding Europe to be more accepting of his colour, he never returned. And there are some real Irish in the mix today. It was with the departure of Lady Gregory and Synge's generation from the Abbey Theatre that dramatists such as Brendan Behan found in the tradition a resource to be ironised and used as an instrument of subversion. "I regard being stage-Irish as something of a trade like any other," he said, "It's something we Irish are particularly good at. After all, we have no other natural resource that I know of." Behan found in the stage-Irish persona of an IRA man a stick with which to tickle the nose of stifling post-independence Fianna Fáil brand nationalism, though there were many who missed the joke.

This is where I owe a personal, and perhaps also a racial, confession. There's no doubting the dodgy past of our cousin the greeting-card leprechaun, or the entanglement with past imperial projects of the stage Oirish stereotypes of fecklessness, inebriated charm and unreality. But the problem with all I've written above is that we Irish actually rather like seeing ourselves as feckless and charming, with an anti-pragmatic streak and a literature of improbability, nurtured no doubt by the lush imaginative inheritance of the Catholic faith, where you get a miracle every week. We may decry as Paddywhackery the notion of the Irish as a transcendent, illogical people who shatter off regularly into the way of the fairies, but we at the same time rather suspect there is some truth in it. We may even shatter off ourselves on a regular basis. Our literature is one in the conditional and the subjunctive, where the world-scrim dividing us from the fairies and the noumenal is always at most a thin one, and one that can be rolled back at that. Our conversation is one of tall stories which need not all necessarily be true, a spoken literature. The Quiet Man, you see, has been adopted and is at this very moment being dubbed into Irish with the backing of TG4, Foras na Gaeilge and Údarás na Gaeltachta. It may be the case, as Declan Kiberd observes in the 17th century Irish language court poet Seathrún Céitinn, that the last of the Uí Neill saw themselves as carrying on with stiff upper-lips, and the English as querulously emotional, hotheaded, and unpredictable. But we grew into our colonial garments, and old clothes fit.

I will sidestep the temptation to reconcile this contradiction, as in Ireland before all other places paradox and relative truths are useful things to keep sweeping narrative at bay. I will only take my summative text from the closing passages of Portrait of the Artist and note that with adequate cunning, in exile, one can silence the more discordant notes of stage Irishism and take pleasure in the remaining consonance of a generous country celebrating Irish culture. A humble, pre-modern British immigrant would approve. Beannachtai na Féile Pádraig Naofa oraibh.

Pádraig Belton lives and writes in Oxford, and is head of a foreign policy think tank. He writes daily on

(Note: quotes in the second paragraph are taken from newspaper coverage of St Patrick's Day in 2004)

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