St Patrick’s Day stimulates the nation’s need to be twinkly, drunk and sentimental

Annual feast day underlines the cheapening, reductive nature of the patriotic aesthetic


Over the last few decades, we’ve worked harder than ever at dismantling unhelpful national stereotypes. You know the sort of thing. The Irish are drunk. The Irish are violent. The Irish are thick. With all our sleek pop stars and tweed-clad Nobel laureates, nobody can take those slights seriously any more. True, the collapse in the property market did suggest that, if offered Tower Bridge by a man in a trilby, most of us would not pause before shovelling over the cash. But, for 363 days of the year, the nation proudly gives the lie to those 1970s British comedians who represented us as lobotomised layabouts.

Do you know where we’re going yet?

Sadly, awful Saint Patrick ’s Day still stimulates the nation’s atavistic need to be twinkly, drunk and sentimental. The authorities at various week-long festivals work hard at counteracting these dreary inclinations. On Tuesday, the smallest towns will celebrate their internationalism by inviting South Americans to parade down the high street in massive papier-mâché heads. Fire-eaters will obstruct Grafton Street. Some play or other will be staged in some theatre or other. Religious organisations – unfazed by the shaky, near-fictional foundations of the myth – will argue desperately for the “real meaning of Saint Patrick’s Day”.

Take a visit to Temple Bar over the weekend and the futility of these efforts will be revealed. (Well, it might not be. Who knows? But it certainly would have been in any previous year.) Saint Patrick’s Day is really about vomiting into the gutter while wearing a fake orange beard and a tricoloured foam-rubber hat. For all our shiny buildings and Broadway-annihilating theatre pieces, we are still dab hands at drinking ourselves into blind insensibility. In recent years, however, we have tended to do more of our boozing in the privacy of home. Not on March 17th. The patron saint seems to encourage a particularly unhinged school of old-school idiotic drinking. Linda Blair in The Exorcist vomits with less propulsive force. Gangs wander the streets with a chemically induced menace that makes the Golden Horde seem like a nature ramble.

Then there’s the depressing embrace of garish cod-Irish iconography. In a weird post-modern swivel, perfectly decent Irish bars take on the character of those Massachusetts taverns that – all leprechauns and shillelaghs – perennially strive and fail to look like perfectly decent Irish bars. It won’t be long before we start eating corned beef and cabbage and wishing each other “top of the morning”.

Indeed, one could reasonably view the notorious logo of the Notre Dame football team as a resonant symbol of the contemporary domestic Saint Patrick’s Day. Representing a bearded leprechaun with his fists raised in preparation for aggro, this unlovely symbol – which appears on much of the Fighting Irish’s merchandise – should be only mildly less offensive than those 19th century Punch caricatures that depicted the Irish as drunk gorillas. Yet the good people of Indiana seem to love it. Come to think of it, isn’t the phrase “fighting Irish” more than a little troublesome? Why not the “lazy Irish” or the “stupid Irish”?

Anyway, come Saint Patrick’s Day – hopped-up on weapons-grade patriotism – large parts of the nation happily embrace every cheap stereotype that has dogged the nation. It’s rather as if, when Bastille Day arrived, the French nation all donned stripy shirts and began riding around on bicycles selling onions. Do the Americans, on Independence Day, dress up in loud plaid trousers and intervene disastrously in Southeast Asian civil wars? I am willing to bet that, on the Festival of the Republic, Italians don’t impersonate gangsters while throwing comically lewd comments towards every passing bottom.

If you wanted to put a positive spin on the embrace of borderline-racist iconography, you could argue that it reflects increased levels of national confidence. Whereas we may once have found murderous leprechauns as troubling as Native Americans found the Cleveland Indians’ caricature of a grinning brave, we now rise above it and smother the old insults in a warm, ironic hug. We are grown-up enough to laugh at ourselves.

That may be so. But what is really being demonstrated is the cheapening, reductive nature of the patriotic aesthetic. You see a considerably more unpleasant version of that broad-stroke approach to national identity on July 12th in Northern Ireland. On Saint Patrick’s Day, celebrants rarely insist upon marching aggressively down streets with red-white-and-blue curbs. But the same simplistic shorthand is in play.

Here’s the point. It’s not easy to rally patriotically around diversity, cultural scope and a shared embrace of difference. The modern, inclusive Saint Patrick’s Day festival could, without much modification, be mounted in any other, less luridly green corner of the calendar. They are all the more pleasant for that. Ignore my earlier cynicism. Embrace papier-mâché heads and Romanian piano accordionists. Say no to pie-eyed leprechauns.

What was it Dr Johnson said about patriotism?

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