St Patrick's Day changed completely for me after I moved from Ireland to Portland, Oregon 15 years ago. My mother died when I was 11, but in the years before that our family of four spent enjoyable St Patrick's Days together. Little tufts of shamrock from our garden were attached to our jackets and green ribbons tied in my long brown hair. Daffodils, snowdrops and tulips lined our driveway, and purple hyacinths gave off beautiful scents in our kitchen. My brother and I joined the parade most years. I walked with the Brownies and my brother with the scouts. For one day we were permitted to break our Lenten fasts and excitedly we spent our change on penny sweets. After the Masses ended and church gate collections were taken care of, my father joined us for lunch in town. For the day that was in it, he treated himself to a pint of Guinness, a green shamrock floating on the head.
My father, a native Irish speaker and an Irish teacher from Connemara, spent most of his life promoting our language. A member of Conradh na Gaeilge for many years, he arranged church gate collections for the organisation every St Patrick’s Day. My friends and I helped with the St Patrick’s Day gate collections. We stood, often on bitterly cold days, at the church gates, greeting people as Gaeilge as they headed in for Mass. In the evening I helped my father count the donations in our sunroom, change sprawled all over the table we normally used for displaying plants. My favourite coins to count were the pennies and there were so many of them. Sometimes people gave very generously, £10-pound notes or even a £20. “Look what someone gave” I would yell, knowing how pleased my father would be. Once he received a prize of recognition from the then Irish president Patrick Hillery, on behalf of Conradh na Gaeilge for the work they were doing to promote Irish. A black and white photograph of the occasion is pasted into my father’s old photo album at home.
When I left Ireland, I wasn’t sure what to expect for March 17th. Knowing I would miss home I decided to create traditions of my own. Working as a kindergarten teacher in downtown Portland, I borrowed children’s books about leprechauns and fairies from the library. The children in my classroom, delighted by the mystical element of these stories, asked me lots of questions about Ireland. I answered their questions and taught them simple Irish songs, phrases and poems. Children are naturally curious with wonderful brains and they soak up much more than people give them credit for.
Every year on the eve of St Patrick’s Day my kindergarten class worked for hours creating leprechaun traps. We brainstormed what they needed (mostly recycled boxes and other useless objects in our recycling area) to create their traps and how best to set them up in order to catch, but never harm, the leprechaun. For years, in the early morning of March 17th, I arrived at the school around 6.45am, a half hour before schedule, in order to rearrange the traps. Into each one I placed a golden wrapped chocolate coin, leaving the trap a little disturbed, with perhaps a piece of green cloth or a doll’s boot for the child to discover.
As I no longer teach kindergarten, I don’t suppose I will ever experience the same joy I shared with those five-year-olds on St Patrick’s Day for nine consecutive years. Their enthusiasm and happiness drew teachers in from every room at the centre. Parents delighted in the occasion and children spent the day searching for clues and more evidence of the leprechauns’ visit to our classroom. As the years progressed, I incorporated extra tricks and games, and I heard from parents years later who said their children continued creating traps at home on St Patrick’s Day for a long time.
On leaving Ireland I expected to miss spending the national holiday with my family. I am nostalgic for those days in Ireland at times but I succeeded in creating wonderful traditions of my own. Parents told me that their children were as excited on the eve of St Patrick’s Day as they were on Christmas Eve. It lifted my heart to spend the day with those children, thrilled by the simplest and most magical of ideas. It helps to see the world through the eyes of the innocent sometimes. There’s magic in it.
Carmel Breathnachis a freelance writer living in Portland, Oregon and working on a memoir about early mother loss