The Real Saint Patrick's Day

On the 17th of March every year, millions of people celebrate the Irish culture by drinking green beer, wearing ‘Kiss Me I’m Irish” t-shirt’s and embracing the Irish concept of ‘craic’ (humour, conversation and enjoyment).  Saint Patrick’s Day is the feast of Saint Patrick, the famed Bishop and Missionary who most famously ‘drove the snakes out of Ireland’, an important symbol for his conversion of the masses to Christianity and his casting out of the original pagan inhabitants. Whilst Saint Patrick’s Day is essentially a religious celebration, for a country that has endured much hardship in its history, there is a clear preference to celebrate a mythical story rather than some of the events that have shaped its destiny. It seems that everyone wants to be Irish on Saint Patrick’s however no one wants to be Irish on Bail-Out Day or 30% Unemployment Day or even on ‘Troika Day’.  Not even the Irish.

In some ways, we are similar in Australia underlying our links to Irish heritage.  We celebrate a public holiday for a horse race in Victoria rather than the day the Mabo judgment was handed down, or the day we gave women the vote.

Are we bastardizing the Irish culture by selectively jumping into this one day celebration, and contributing to its commercialization by purchasing ‘Shamrock Shakes’ from McDonald’s (like they do in the USA)? The significance of the day itself lies in Saint Patrick’s introduction of Christianity into Ireland which effectively beginning the new Irish state; the fact that the feast day of Saint Patrick is associated most commonly with a day’s drinking is a slap in the face to Irish Culture. Or is it?

400,000 people have left the Emerald Isle since the Global Financial Crisis pummelled the Celtic tiger economy in 2008. On average 250 people leave the country every day.  What makes this situation even worse is that the immigration doesn’t take the form of the ‘coffin ships’ crossing the Atlantic in the 19th century; rather, more than 70% of the people who have left Ireland since 2006 are in their 20’s and have a university education (University College Cork Survey).  Since the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 which brought an end to ‘The Troubles’, Northern Ireland has been relatively peaceful. It is no coincidence that the emergence of the Celtic Tiger – resulting in high GDP growth, low unemployment, and rising property values – had a combined effect to distract everyone except the minority (namely the Irish Republican Army and Ulster Volunteer Force) from ‘The Troubles’ which had dominated its history for centuries. Yet, as night follows day, the economic wonderland has deserted the Irish with key industries now relocated to eastern Europe and the common economic ailments of high unemployment, negative equity caused by falling property values and increasing migration of skilled young people has reignited ‘the Troubles’. Only last Saturday, police officers came under attack from homemade bombs on The Fall’s Road in Belfast, which is a nationalist stronghold.  The New IRA claimed responsibility for these attacks and said that the ceasefire that has lasted since 1998 was over.  Saint Patrick’s Day only averts attention to the reality that Ireland, both North and South, is in deep trouble both socially and economically.

When considering the immensely broad and tragic record of Irish history, many events such as the Easter Rising of 1916, Bloody Sunday in 1972, the 1981 Hunger Strike and even the historic Good Friday Agreement which ended decades of bloodshed dwarf Saint Patricks Day. Ultimately, Saint Patricks Day is practically insignificant in the shaping of Ireland as a nation; so why is it that only Saint Patricks Day is celebrated by the general public when there are clearly more significant events which are only celebrated by the historian or the nationalist?

The Easter Rising took place in 1916 and involved Irish Nationalists seizing control of the General Post Office in Dublin and declaring an Irish Republic (Ireland at the time was still under the control of Britain).  The Rising was led by the famed patriots Padraic Pearse and James Connolly and although in ended in an overwhelming defeat and eventual surrender to the British forces, the Rising of 1916 signalled the beginning of the Irish Independence process which resulted in the formation of the Irish Free State in 1922.  The Easter Rising is commemorated by patriots each year and it is immortalized in literature and drama however the attendance at the General Post Office on Easter Monday each year for a vigil is dwarfed by the attendance at various Saint Patrick’s Days parades.  This is because people want to focus on the trivial side of Irish history and this is what Saint Patricks Day has become, people do not want to dwell on the serious questions that the Easter Rising still poses on national identity nearly 100 years later.  Perhaps Saint Patrick’s Day is a bastardisation of Irish culture with a convenient ignorance of the rich socio-economic and political history that should be celebrated instead – such as the 1916 Easter Rising.  U2 would certainly agree.

As a first generation Irish Catholic, I truly believe that the Good Friday Accord that was signed in 1999 is the most important event in Irish history.  The Good Friday Accord or the Belfast Agreement was the end to the bloodshed in Northern Ireland and it also established a devolved parliament which takes the form of the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Northern Ireland Executive.  Crucially however, the agreement also committed parties to “exclusively democratic and peaceful means of resolving differences on political issues” which effectively was the decommissioning of weapons held by paramilitary groups such as the IRA.  The Belfast Agreement ultimately set up a framework for Northern Ireland to develop its own institutions and it crucially allowed for the people of the north to decide their own future in terms of Nationalism or Unionism.  An agreement that ended ‘The Troubles’ which claimed the lives of over 3500 people should be commemorated much more than the Feast of Saint Patrick.

Ireland today is struggling.  The economic recovery is ongoing and though it is on an upward trend, the future is still bleak.  The ‘New IRA’ has issued a statement that they will ignore the ceasefire outlined in the Good Friday Agreement and this makes a return to the dark days of The Troubles a real possibility.  For these reasons, Saint Patrick’s Day should be a day when people reflect on the past, present and future of Ireland as a nation and understand the enormous challenges it faces, but still have the “craic” and embrace what it is to be Irish.