Giving out is the most genuinely Irish tradition there is
St Patty’s Day is cultural appropriation on a grand scale. We love it, America: work away
Chicago, 2006: Workers dye the Chicago river green as part of the city’s annual St Patrick’s Day celebrations. Photograph: John Gress/Reuters
When I lived abroad, I dreaded the inevitable question of the traditions we actually celebrate on St Patrick’s Day. If you don’t eat corned beef or put green dye down the toilet, Americans wanted to know, genuinely bewildered, what do you do?
I always struggled for an answer to this – should I admit that we get together to celebrate our mild, functioning alcoholism? Or should I say we pay tribute to the tolerance of our ancestors for standing around in the cold and giving out that the parade was better last year?
Admittedly, the appreciation of giving out is an acquired taste
The last one, at least, is a genuinely Irish tradition. Giving out, I could have said, may be our most inclusive pursuit; a tradition so quintessentially Irish that there isn’t even a non-Hiberno English translation for it. Scolding, clearly, is not the same thing. Nor is moaning, complaining, griping, telling off, cribbing, whinging, bitching, ranting, bellyaching. Giving out is just giving out, a beloved national pastime that doesn’t cost anything, and can be practiced by anybody, anywhere – under your breath, just loud enough so it’s noted by your significant other. Or loudly, to random strangers in shops, about any topic you fancy – taxi drivers; people saying “text” instead of “texted”; Saoirse Ronan’s accent; 800 years of oppression; people with notions including, but not limited to, Bono, the lads from the Happy Pear, and whatever couple was just on Room to Improve. And when you’ve mastered all that, you’re ready for the final test in your ability to give out: a call to Liveline. Yes, giving out, I could have told them, is such an important part of the national psyche it has its own dedicated radio show. If the International Olympic Committee would just give proper recognition to the ability to mildly and amusingly rage against perceived injustices, we would win all the medals, all the time.
Admittedly, the appreciation of giving out is an acquired taste. When I first moved away from Ireland five years ago, I told everyone who asked I was leaving to escape the relentless, grinding misery. We’d had five years of recession by then, which meant at least 1,310 episodes of Morning Ireland. I wanted a break from giving out. I wanted to live somewhere surrounded by laidback, happy people, or at least people who had the decency to be quietly unhappy.
And yes, at first, it was lovely to live among folk in Australia and later America who cleaned up their own litter, and who seemed wholly untroubled by most of the things happening beyond their own picket fence. After a few years, though, I began to notice something troubling. The opposite of constant, low-level apoplexy is apathy. Apathy is the absence of strong feeling, and absences create vacuums. This might be a slightly simplistic interpretation of the geopolitical events of the last few years, but I think it’s our capacity for outrage that will save us from the march of the right. We’d be too busy giving out about the parking chaos and the rip-off hot dogs to take those rallies seriously.
St Patrick’s Day has been greatly improved in recent years by all the new things there are to give out yards about
Anyway, even before the rallies, I had already begun missing the impotent fury of home. I missed the ability of Irish people to wear the ears off each other over some perceived absolute travesty, the strength of the reaction to which would be impossible to contextualise for someone not from Ireland – Saipan, Garth Brooks, Irish Water, the Late Late Show line-up. When I started feeling nostalgic for Liveline, I knew the jig was up. I was constitutionally indisposed to living amongst the largely untroubled.
St Patrick’s Day has been greatly improved in recent years by all the new things there are to give out yards about, almost all of them happening outside Ireland: the T-shirts being sold in Walmart and Target bearing racist slogans; the bewildering range of purposes to which Americans deploy green food dye (in toilet bowls, in beer, on their dogs, even); the ridiculous nature of the mass-produced foodstuff that pass as “Irish” (soda bread biscotti, I ask you); the children being encouraged to commit minor acts of physical aggression on each other in the name of Ireland; even the very words “St Patty’s Day”.
Bursts of fury
It is cultural appropriation on a grand scale – the shameless theft of our culture and traditions and the wholesale rehashing of them into something crass, embarrassing and entirely unrecognisable. Don’t get us wrong, America. We love it. Please appropriate away. Keep printing those Make St Patty’s Day Great Again T-shirts and eating your corned beef. We’d be bereft if you stopped. We might even have to go back to giving out about our own drinking, interspersed with bursts of fury about the state of the Taoiseach with his bowl of shamrock and his zeitgeisty jokes.
So give it socks today. Give out about the shoddy floats, the padding out of the parade with tractors, the poor boy scouts not even allowed to wear an anorak, the pools of vomit, the litter. And then cast your eyes further afield and give out about St Patty’s Day and all its crass materialism, the offensive T-shirts, the leprechaun traps. It’s more than a tradition. It’s your patriotic duty.