Lá Fhéile Pádraig

Letter from Ireland:

There are few realizations as startling as that of the sudden sight of your left boot descending upon a foot-tall pile of green vomit. It wasn’t a uniform green but more of a speckled, splattered paint. Think Jackson Pollock. But in museums and art galleries, they always tell you not to touch the artwork.

It was a Saturday morning in March. Dublin’s Saint Patrick’s Festival was not set to start until later that afternoon, and Lá Fhéile Pádraig, the actual Saint Patrick’s holiday, was not for another three days. But, with the recent influx of tourists, the festivities in the city’s Temple Bar neighborhood had already begun.  According to one of my taxi drivers, a lively, lifetime Dubliner, tourists love going to Temple Bar. And with its inflated food and drink prices (all a function of supply and demand), there was no doubt that Temple Bar loves tourists too.

Known internationally as Saint Patrick’s Day, this globally celebrated holiday served originally as a religious feast day to recognize the bringing of Christianity to Ireland by Saint Patrick. Despite the holiday’s deeply sacred origins, the manner in which most people celebrate Saint Patrick’s life, death, and works is far from pious. Throughout the world there are lively parades and festivals and seas of green when March 17th comes around. All is joyful and happy and wonderful, but this Saint Patrick’s Day is a relatively modern occurrence.

Above: Musicians from the Emerald Society Pipes and Drums march in the Saint Patrick's Day parade. Here: Dancers from the pageant company "Inishowen Carnival Group" perform in the parade (Brooks/TYG).
Above: Musicians from the Emerald Society Pipes and Drums march in the Saint Patrick’s Day parade. Here: Dancers from the pageant company “Inishowen Carnival Group” perform in the parade (Brooks/TYG).

Over an early brunch in San Lorenzo’s Restaurant in Dublin, Tanya Dean, a recent graduate of the Yale School of Drama and an Ireland native, informed me that when she was a young girl growing up in Ireland only a couple of decades ago, the Saint Patrick’s Day parade had much less to do with the factory-produced leprechaun hats and drunken debauchery and much more to do with the saint. “Over the past few years, the parade’s focus has shifted from Christianity in Ireland to celebrating ‘general Irish culture,’” she said. The issue certainly isn’t that the latter does not deserve celebration, but it is that there has been an immense secularization of a religious day that otherwise has great historical and cultural importance to the country. The latest national census, produced in 2011, reported that almost 90 percent of Irish citizens identify as Christian, with the vast majority being Roman Catholic.

The commercialization of the national holiday began at the end of the 20th century as part of a purported government effort to display the richness of both traditional and contemporary Irish culture. However, many Irish citizens feel that it was more accurately a response to Saint Patrick’s Day parades in cities like New York and Chicago, which are home to significant Irish-American populations. Every year, these parades bring substantial revenue to the United States. The Irish government projected that their country, the home of Saint Patrick’s Day, could potentially benefit from a similar boost in tourism. The celebration in Dublin, the largest in Ireland, evolved over the course of a decade from an understated, local parade into a four-day “Saint Patrick’s Festival” with concerts and boisterous carnival rides. These days, if you go on to the expansive, official “Saint Patrick’s Festival” website, it is difficult to find more than a sentence about Saint Patrick himself.

Colorfully costumed performers from the pageant company "Dowtcha" dance during the Saint Patrick's Day festivities (Brooks/TYG).
Colorfully costumed performers from the pageant company “Dowtcha” dance during the Saint Patrick’s Day festivities (Brooks/TYG).

On March 17th, the parade started at 10 a.m. Not knowing where the parade actually began and ended, I stumbled upon a scenic spot near Parnell Square, across from the pillared Gate Theatre. There had been light rain showers throughout the morning, but the pale grey sky complemented the solid, stone building.

Near the start of the parade, a troop of traditional Irish Uilleann bagpipers, which those I spoke with told me are extremely different from, and much better sounding, than the Great Highland bagpipers of Scotland, marched down the Square. There were blazer-wearing equestrians alongside dancing bananas, a giant and futuristic green flea, and a lot of electronic dance music. The celebration was an energetic and multi-faceted fusion of old and new Irish culture. Numerous locals had brought their entire families to cheer on their children performing in the parade. People were sipping on tea and americanos, laughing, and taking pictures. After my previous episode with the green vomit, I had expected much more festive mayhem. To my delight, it was quite the family affair.

But the parade’s midday after-party was not so family friendly. It just so happened that the tourist trap Temple Bar district was the only area that had not shut down in celebration of the holiday. Out of desperation, I heeded the cries of my empty stomach and entered Temple Bar. I walked down its cobblestone streets until I reached a mass of green-clad youth, and for the first time in a week, I didn’t hear a single Irish accent. It was about two degrees Celsius outside, or 35 degree Fahrenheit, and rain had been falling in irregular intervals. Yet based on the crowd’s choice of attire, it looked more like July on a beach in the north of Spain. Even stranger than the all-green suits and four-leaf clovers donned by passersby at the parade were the individuals in crop-tops, tank tops, and miniskirts in near-freezing temperatures at Temple Bar. Despite Ireland’s unyielding pride in Guinness, American Budweiser appeared to be today’s drink of choice. Numerous, mysterious yellow puddles seemed to be either lager or urine, or, more likely, both. The legal drinking age in Ireland is eighteen; the median age at Temple Bar on St. Patrick’s Day was closer to fourteen. A barely conscious twelve-year-old stumbled up to me yelling, “My brotha!” Needless to say, I did not stay in Temple Bar for long.

Light rain falls at the National Museum of Ireland - Decorative Arts & History (Brooks/TYG).
Light rain falls at the National Museum of Ireland – Decorative Arts & History (Brooks/TYG).

In the week before the festival, I had the opportunity to see what the city typically looked like when it was not geared up for March 17th. The city center was quiet, yet bustling. People walked up and down the streets and hopped on and off Dublin buses. With its historic buildings like Leinster House, Kilmainham Gaol, and Dublin Castle, monuments like The Spire, and renowned pubs, including Davy Byrne’s and Mulligan’s, the city is vast but comforting—charming and unashamedly honest. Prices for food and commodities were modest, and waiters engaged me in conversations about controversial politics and international current events.

“Anyone who wears a four-leaf clover on St. Patrick’s Day,” Dean told me, “is one hundred percent a tourist.” The association of four-leaf clovers with good luck is not an Irish one. Anyone from Ireland knows that Saint Patrick used the shamrock, or “three-leaf clover,” to explain the Holy Trinity of Catholicism. Many Dubliners, Dean said, “wouldn’t be caught dead even wearing green.” They perceive the way Saint Patrick’s Day is celebrated in the United States, around the world, and now even in Ireland as removed from the true significance of the day. These days, many Irish people do choose to drink and party on Saint Patrick’s Day. But from what I have been told and what I have seen, this comes from a genuine desire to celebrate Saint Patrick, and the religion and faith he brought to their homeland.

Just because the average Irish citizen has an appreciation for the traditional meaning of the holiday, however, does not denote that the Irish observance of Saint Patrick’s Day in Dublin and even in more rural areas of the country has been entirely unaffected by American secularization. Caroline Lynch, a Yale College sophomore, was raised in a small, Irish village called Slane. The holiday has a particular importance for her and her community because the Hill of Slane just north of her village is where Saint Patrick is said to have lit a Paschal fire signaling Christ’s eternal presence in defiance of the pagan king of Tara in 433 A.D., a major narrative in the life of the saint. Yet even in a small village like her own, Lynch believes that the local celebration has become more commercial than it should be. “When I was younger, the week leading up to St. Patrick’s Day…was used to teach us about his story, to further explain the Christianity that he was trying to spread and to really learn what all the celebration was about,” Lynch explained to me. “Now that I am older, I have noticed that in most cases it has become less of a day to celebrate everything about being Irish and more an occasion to take the day off work and get really drunk at the pub.” 

Like Dean, Lynch views the growth of Saint Patrick’s Day in Ireland, and especially in Dublin, as a reaction to the holiday’s growth globally. Currently, Saint Patrick’s Day is the most widely celebrated national holiday in the world, and, predictably, the number of March tourists to Ireland has boosted. As a result, Ireland has expanded the celebration in an effort to accommodate the increase in tourists. Visitors, especially those from the United States, arrive with expectations of how the Irish celebrate the holiday based on what they have seen in their home countries, and Ireland does not want its guests to leave disappointed. Still, the festival in Dublin isn’t as extreme as some celebrations in the United States, which can be a let-down for American tourists. “We don’t dye rivers green. Yes, there are a lot of people who go to the pub, but a lot of families and friends just spend the day together,” Lynch told me.

The way in which Saint Patrick’s Day has changed in Ireland in the past few decades is a lot like the process of reinforcement in evolutionary biology. When a geographic barrier separates individuals of a single species, say clovers, for a sufficient amount of time, they will likely start to diverge and develop unique genetic codes. Sometimes, individuals from the two clover species remain similar enough to successfully reproduce, but the offspring of these crosses are less fit, or less capable of successfully reproducing, than their parental clover species. When Irish immigrants first brought Saint Patrick’s Day festivities to the U.S. in the late 1700s, the American holiday began to evolve in a manner separate from the annual celebrations an ocean away. For three hundred years, the American and Irish holidays diverged, until they were reintroduced and crossed in Ireland during the late 20th century. From this cross emerged the 4-5 day long Saint Patrick’s Day Festival, both underwhelming to some American tourists and disappointing to many Irish citizens and their idea of how the day should be observed. Just as the laws of reinforcement dictate, the new Saint Patrick’s Festival in Dublin is less fit. The likelihood of its longevity appears empirically improbable.

Brian Brooks ’17 is an Ecology and Evolutionary Biology major in Ezra Stiles College. He can be reached at brian.brooks@yale.edu