Looking back through a prism of glass and cowpat

My St Patrick’s Day malaise has arrived again – a hangover from the drizzling 1960s, the squally 1970s and a couple of damp years in the 1980s


There must surely be a name for the malaise I fall into every time St Patrick’s Day springs fully formed from the calendar, studded with gold fáinnes and miraculous medals. The condition, I’m pretty certain, is a hangover from the drizzling 1960s, the squally 1970s and a couple of damp years in the 1980s when the St Patrick’s Day parade was about as alluring as a lump of steamed haddock and non-attendance was punishable with three Hail Marys and two weeks in a caravan park in Clogherhead.

Those were the days when the festivities consisted of our small Army turning our streets khaki, the troops accompanied by a thunderous downfall of ample American majorettes, tightly packed into knee-high boots and Spandex shorts, twirling their batons and grinning at us shivering natives through the kind of dentistry we could only dream of.

The habit of looking backwards through a prism of ground glass and cowpat is, I realise, damaging to the psyche. Doubtless the country is awash with well-balanced 50-somethings who actually like St Patrick’s Day, who have always liked St Patrick’s Day.

These people are the benevolent types who harbour generous memories of family trips on spluttering buses to the big smoke, of being held shoulder-high by a Brylcreemed daddy to watch the parade of San Franciscan kneecaps thumping down main street, before heading to a damp park for a picnic of egg sandwiches and marietta biscuits, all washed down with a quart of calamine lotion.

They are men and women who don’t associate the annual celebration of our patron saint, and his zero tolerance for asps, with the strange realities of growing up in a quietly oppressive and deeply patriarchal state where you couldn’t buy a condom or a sun-blushed tomato for love nor money.

It is important to say at this point that, in the past decade or so, a lot of vile old snakes have been banished, and the parade and festivities have become pretty spectacular, the sedate marching bands and mottled thighs subsumed by lavish puppetry and a whole arc of imagination, art and expertise.

Starting this year, and for the first time in its history, St Patrick’s Festival has announced a three-year narrative for the parade. This year’s theme is “Let’s Make History’”, with the focus on interpreting events from our past. Next year we’ll be invited to diagnose our present, and in 2016 we’ll be asked to predict our futures, with the festival posing the question, “who do we aspire to be in the next 100 years?”.

These are brave, nigh on incendiary questions, and I take my great big emerald-coloured velour hat off to the festival organisers for having the green, white and gold balls to ask them.

I wonder what most of us would assemble if we were given a float in this year’s parade and, with it, an invitation to make history or to record our own. I’d put one of those old toploader washing machines on my float, a peroxide-blonde woman tethered to it by a great big sheet being fed into the wringer. And I’d have a man in a corduroy jacket with a Sweet Afton in his mouth and a paperback in his pocket, brushing his suede shoes with a hard little brush before dashing off to cut a swathe through Grafton Street and to linger in the back bar of the Wicklow Hotel with other refugees from domesticity, blowing smoke rings at the ceiling, dousing their whiskeys with soda, their vodkas with clinking ice.

I’d have a small parish on my float too, decorated by nuns with stiff wimples and disappointed faces and priests with broken-veined noses and a nice line in contempt. I’d have little girls imagining their futures, in tartan kilts and knee socks, with skipping ropes and toy prams full of big pink plastic babies. And I’d have a handful of grubby little boys doing manly butt-smoking at the end of the lane, thinking about perfumed women and the fast cars that would one day carry them to other places far from here.

“The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there,” wrote LP Hartley in The Go-Between . In which case, maybe it’s all right to nominate a day in the year to remember that other land, that other kingdom.

Or maybe it would be better to take a deep breath, paint a shamrock on my mush and hop the bus into town and celebrate the now.

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