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St Patrick’s Day Down Under: Beyond the glad tidings

As a long departed Irish expat I now harbour mixed feelings about St Patrick’s Day, writes Philip Lynch in Tasmania

Sun, Mar 17, 2013, 08:00


Philip Lynch

As a long departed Irish expat I now harbour mixed feelings about St Patrick’s Day. This ambivalence crept in to my thinking more than a decade ago and it has never quite dissipated.

I vividly remember that day; sweltering heat, humidity with ne’er a hint of rain – yet another heatwave though summer had already officially ended. I’d met up with my brother and sister after work. March in Australia often packs a punch and that Melbourne evening in 2002 was no exception.

We’d stood on the sun-drenched footpath, sipping beer as our shadows lengthened in the cordoned off area outside the pub with hundreds of others who were determined to “celebrate” the occasion. As the euphoria of the assembled revellers ratcheted up, something didn’t seem right, and for me, something was lost; which was a stark contrast to all those St Patrick Days of my formative years.

Some of my earliest memories of St Patrick’s Day are of frantic last minute scouring the fields for acceptable specimens of shamrock – it couldn’t be clover. Then fastening the trefoil like a badge of honour to our lapels with safety pins to wear to morning Mass. Hail Glorious of St Patrick… we’d belt out at Mass with unashamed gusto.  On us thy poor children bestow a sweet smile… After almost three decades, I’m surprised that I can so easily remember so many of that hymn’s words.

It was always the time of year when winter was invariably yielding to signs of spring. When the days were beginning to lengthen and buds and blossoms appeared everywhere; when Lent was about to begin or perhaps it even had already begun; and, when we’d have embarked on our semi-mandatory chocolate free fast on the way to Easter Sunday.

I can clearly recall one St Patrick’s Day morning – in what could’ve resembled a scene from a Michael McLaverty short story. I came upon one of our sheep who’d sought a quiet corner so as to give birth to triplets. But unlike the bare-footed wide-eyed goosson in McLaverty’s story, no reward in the form of coins awaited me. Grass was especially scarce that cold spring. It was tough times on our modest sized farm and my father had good reason to fret.

Of course it’s not just the ritual of St Patrick’s Day that I’ve forsaken – not just lapsing with attending Mass and not wearing the shamrock. It’s a little more complicated. After all, I’d once waited with unbridled anticipation, as a seminarian, in the electric atmosphere that was that dawn at Phoenix Park to witness Pope John Paul II celebrate Mass way back in 1979. I can still remember our excitement that September morning. But that was then – almost half a lifetime ago. And I now have to fess up to my tepid response to the news from Rome in recent days.

My decades in Australia have rung in the changes. Here, St Patrick’s Day, for the most part, assumes a superficiality, and fringe-worthy status. The events and activities of the day typically garner a byline or footnote in the evening news, after the weather report. Politicians “revisit” their Irish heritage however tenuous and they are duly photographed sipping on green beer. Irish theme pubs do a roaring trade. So many people are suddenly Irish for one day. It’s as if the worst aspects of being Irish are paraded and it doesn’t always make for an edifying spectacle, especially as the day draws to a close.

I will always retain pride in my Irish heritage. It’s rusted into my DNA and I wouldn’t have it any other way. But you won’t find me amongst the lengthening shadows or assembled throngs on March 17th. I will of course don something green today; and my young daughter has her green t-shirt with its emblazoned shamrock at the ready.

In an uncanny corollary of sorts to the legend or legacy of St Patrick, just the other day, my wife came upon a tiger snake in our vegetable garden here in Tasmania. The local “snake relocator” was promptly summoned, and he adroitly removed one of the top ten most deadly reptiles in the world; incontestable evidence, no doubt, that the patron saint of Ireland did not make it here to the land of Down Under.  Though if he had, he certainly would’ve had his work cut out. And I don’t necessarily mean the snakes.

For full Irish Times coverage of St Patrick’s Day celebrations in Ireland and around the world, click here.