Like many Irish living abroad I’ve had an on-off relationship with our national holiday. It’s the one day of the year when you can dip into that pool of Irish identity that you always know is there, but which you might choose to disconnect from for the rest of the year.
When I lived in New York, more than 20 years ago, I chose not to dip into the Irish scene. I never went to the St Patrick’s Day parade, perhaps seeing it as a local Irish-American event and somewhat removed from the country I had deliberately left only a few years before. I was actually more curious to watch the others nationalities - like the Poles or Haitians - when they paraded down 5th Avenue and lit up the Empire State Building with their colours.
One year I did give in to the badgering of colleagues keen for a serious, green-tinged night out, but I soon had enough of the noise from a gaggle of NYPD pipers playing in full regalia from behind, and on top of, the bar of a small Irish pub in Chelsea. They were great, but a quiet drink in our local sports bar was enough for me.
Sense of identity
By the time my husband and I were living in Oslo almost 20 years later, my sense of identity had changed, and now that we had two small kids we wanted to be part of something celebratory, to pass on some of my heritage. We fell in with the highly-organised Norwegian Irish society and before we knew it, my husband - my burly Canadian - was persuaded to take on the (actual) mantle of the good saint that leads the local parade.
Every March, for three years, he would dress in green and white robes, holding his golden staff and accompanied by local pipers and Irish wolfhounds, he led the way for the roughly 2,000 Irish and Ireland-lovers down Oslo’s main thoroughfare. With green hats on our heads, and flag-waving kids on our shoulders, we passed the curious Saturday-shopping Vikings, a small mass of Irish people who felt chuffed to publicly mark our traditions and the place we came from.
I reached the peak of my Irish-abroad-pride during one of those Oslo parades when our elder daughter performed on stage with the local Irish dancing school. Her bearded daddy, the saint, watched from his post, while I stood in the crowd with our youngest and belted out Amhrán na bhFiann along with the few others who knew the words. I had come full circle from my days of slinking home to Brooklyn.
I’ve been lucky to mark St Patrick’s Day in some random places over the years. In Montreal, my fingers first experienced near-frostbite while we stopped briefly to watch the parade, and in Hawaii I had to drag my husband off the lava field we were hiking through as I felt an almost-superstitious urge to find a bar and toast Saint Patrick before the day was out.
Last year at the embassy do in Rome, I watched from the top of the long Guinness queue while the two carabinieri who’d been guarding us outside were ushered in and handed the last couple of glasses, their fingers off their guns just long enough to gulp down some creamy stuff and give us all a big smile.
What to expect?
Now that we’re living in Ireland, it feels strange to celebrate “the day of being Irish”. We’re Irish every day, and surrounded by Irish people. No-one has sent me a St Patrick’s Day card this year - my mum and aunties used to, and the arrival of the card, usually depicting the saint hovering through a cloud of shamrocks, meant I’d have to explain again to my husband that it is technically a religious holiday. We’d also get some cute hairbands or other plastic stuff in the envelope, but this year we can pop out and buy as many of those as we want.
We’re not sure what to expect from St Patrick’s Day here, and there are no obvious signs of the green overload you might get in the US. There’s a notice from school that the kids don’t have to wear uniform today, and the library politely reminds me with a shamrock-bedecked email that it’ll be a long weekend.
There are loads of family festivals and events to go to, and the parades are meant to be full-on international, creative extravaganzas. There’s the rugby and the GAA. I don’t think it even rains anymore on March 17th, they must have fixed that. It’s all a big change from my childhood St Patrick’s Day memories: church in the morning, afternoon at the (dreary) parade, and evening avoiding the pubs but tucking into some chocolate as this was a get-out-of-Lent day.
Friends tell me it is worth going to the Dublin parade, though we should consider bringing our own stepladder. I hear the drinking still goes on, funny that. So we might want to get the kids home by mid afternoon. Someone suggests we head to Bray, where the parade sounds more low-key: just be prepared for the floats of local girl guides and volunteers being followed by the local pole dancers. Sounds to me like a bit of craic (a word I can now use without having to explain it every time).
I read that the Taoiseach will join in the New York parade. This goliath of all St Patrick’s Day events, a 250-year-old institution, finally allowed gay groups to march in it only two years ago. This fact, when I read it, astonished me and it made me realise how privileged we are in this day and age to march in any form, for any reason, to support any cause, or just for the fun of it.
So maybe we will make the effort to negotiate our way into town and watch this new, international Ireland that promises to be on show. Neither the saintly Leo nor my husband the saint will have a key role, but we did hear that Luke Skywalker might be there!
Emma Prunty is writing a series on her experiences of settling back into Dublin after many years abroad and seeing it with fresh eyes, along with her family of foreigners: a Canadian husband and Canadian/Norwegian kids. After living in the UK, US, Canada, Norway and Italy she knows there are pros and cons to every place you move to. She blogs at washyourlanguage.com