By John J. Hanan
Raging alcoholics wait for March 17 like children standing at the gates to Disney World — look closely and you can see them foaming at the mouth as they rummage through their closet for a clean green shirt. It’s the only day of the year when anyone can get shit-faced drunk and still blend in with society.
To not get completely inebriated is to not properly celebrate St. Patrick’s Day — which is something I usually boast after my fifth Bailey’s on the rocks. Exploiting my long lost Irish ancestry as a reason to drink is done in the name of tradition. But the March 18 tradition of waking up with a giant hangover means time for some sober thought.
So after many years of drunken embarrassment, I’ve decided to bypass the boozing and instead search for the true meaning of St. Paddy’s day.
Since discussing the patron saint of Ireland with a bunch of rowdy revellers might not produce too many pearls of wisdom, I decided to start with the hardcore celebrants at the 15th annual St. Patrick’s Day parade.
The luck of the Irish shone upon spectators last Sunday with weather so warm even the homeless were celebrating. Judging by the multi-cultural crowd, it was true that on this day everyone is Irish.
Perhaps since the parade featured more than 2,000 marchers, organizers ran out of micks to come and watch it. The parade — one of the biggest in North American — brought 30 floats down Yonge Street in a show that lasted an excruciating two hours.
As you might expect, most floats featured Celtic music and dance, marching bands and Irish terriers. But interspersed throughout were a number of floats whose sole Irish connection was a boom box blaring U2.
As a truckload of Shriners, dancing to the Village People’s YMCA slowly rolled by, I wondered if they all should just change the name to something more universal like ‘Green Day.’ It might help attract stoners and old punk fans.
Shaun Cunningham might protest changing the name of the parade. Decked out all in green, Cunningham wore a ‘Kiss me I’m Irish’ t-shirt and a jester’s hat to cheer on participants. The 79-year-old hasn’t missed a parade since it began and offered me his opinion on what the day means.
“It’s a day when the Irish all over the world get to celebrate, and those who aren’t Irish get to pretend they are.”
He reminded me that the parade was mostly for children and that adults wait until later to celebrate.
I wasn’t so sure that the kids were having a great time. The leprechauns seemed to scare more children than they excited. And a unicyclist almost took out a row of sitting tots after he had to jump off his wheel to avoid a contingent of motorized outhouses.
And I’m not quite sure what message the Guinness entry sent. They had someone playing St. Patrick — dressed in priestly garb sitting next to a bar. I might not have the authority of the Pope, but it seemed a tab sacrilegious.
The parade brought no clarity to this holiday — it only intensified my desire to find a pub as I read the county banners of Cork, Mayo and Meath.
The parade’s origins, much like the man behind the event, are still disputed. Some people believe it started first in Boston in 1737, while others argue that New York was the birthplace of the St. Patrick’s Day parade.
The 17th of March has been a religious holiday in Ireland for several thousand years. They day occurs during the Christian season of Lent, and Irish families traditionally spend the morning in church and the rest of the day feasting on lamb stew and cabbage. Up until a few years ago, laws in Ireland forced all pubs to close for the day.
The potato Famine of 1845 brought millions of Irish immigrants to America. They formed large communities along the eastern seaboard. Despite their enormous presence, Irish Catholics were easily exploited because of their funny accents and non-Protestant beliefs.
Realizing that their strength lay in numbers, the St. Patrick’s Day parade soon evolved into a mass demonstration of political power. Non-Irish candidates looking for votes began showing up to shake hands. And times haven’t changed — this year’s mayoral candidate John Nunziata showed up with a steel drum band. No comment from Nunziata on whether his publicist confused Saturday’s event with Caribana.
St Patrick was not an alcoholic, but he did consider himself a pagan until being kidnapped by Irish bandits at the age of 16. It’s ironic that the patron saint of Ireland was actually born a wealthy Brit who had to be tied down and dragged to his adopted country.
The life of St Patrick is filed with as much confusion as the holiday that bears his name. His given name was Maewyn Succat, but that’s about all historians agree on. Most consider March 17 the anniversary of his death, others think it’s his birth date and some believe it’s when he banished snakes from the emerald isle.
There is even debate about whether he should be credited with introducing Christianity to the Irish.
The myth of St. Patrick as an exterminator is accepted by most as a fable and not fact. The legend is a symbolic tale of how St. Patrick was able to banish the Druid religions from Ireland.
He started out as a shepherd in Ireland, learning to love the land he was forced to work upon for six years. St. Patrick eventually escaped on a ship headed to France where he studied theology for 12 years before eventually returning to Ireland as a bishop.
St. Patrick may have not been the first Catholic missionary in Ireland, but his ability to convert the Celtic Druids to Christianity was unparalleled.
He achieved conversion by combining existing Druid symbols with Catholic teachings — rather than trying to completely eradicate native beliefs. The Celtic cross in an example of how he combined local sun worship with a powerful Christian symbol.
The shamrock is another important symbol commonly attributed to St. Patrick. Old Irish folklore explains how St. Patrick used the three-leaded clover to explain the Trinity. He used each leaf to represent how the Father, the Son, and the Holy spirit could all exist as elements of the same entity.
His tireless efforts at conversion helped change the faith of the country. Today more than 90 per cent of the island’s inhabitants call themselves Catholic.
After judging the ‘Polish tribute to the Irish’ as the best float in the parade, I decided that since it’s technically not yet March 17, grabbing a green beer would not be cheating on my vow.
I walk a few blocks east to McVeigh’s tavern on Church Street only to find the doors locked. The doorman explained that because St. Patrick’s Day is one of the busiest bar days of the year, the entire staff spends the night before resting and cleaning up the bar. In the background I hear a toast being raised and glasses clinking together.
Realizing I have only a few hours left to catch a green beer before my self-imposed deadline, I promptly dead south to the Irish embassy. Although frequented by diplomats, the Embassy is actually a bar on Yonge St.
Luckily it’s open and a few patrons inside are busy getting their St. Patrick’s day celebrations started early. The bartender informs me that they no longer serve green beer as they don’t like having to clean up green puke.
I wonder what could puke he does enjoy cleaning up as I begin my first pint of Guinness. I ask the guy sitting next to me at the bar about the origins of the folklore surrounding St. Patrick.
“I think it started after the Simpson’s episode where all the snakes are driven out of Springfield,” was the best I could decipher from his slurred speech.
After my second pint of beer I forget about St. Patrick and begin wondering why my glass doesn’t come with a foamy shamrock in the centre. A few pints later and I’m wearing green and singing along to traditional Irish music.
In the end, I came to the conclusion that celebrating St. Patrick’s Day had little to do with any religious observance or ethnic traditions. It’s an international excuse to get drunk — regardless of whether you’re Irish or not.