It's late in the evening of St. Patrick's. What a strange holiday it is, here in the states! I was at work today, and heard a tongue in cheek conversation in which someone stated that they don't celebrate St. Patrick's Day, because they don't drink, and someone else who followed up by saying they didn't understand why we celebrated St. Patrick's anyway - why not just have a 'British People Day'? (a slight shudder chased my spine for the Irish of the world on that one) I don't know why we do - or I do know why we STARTED to, but let's start there.
The celebration of St. Patrick's Day in America is actually very old, in some ways - all the way to George Washington, in fact. In 1780, on St. Patrick's, Washington gave all his troops a holiday, in solidarity with the Irish, who struggled for freedom in much the same way, even against the same imperial power (it probably helped, as well, that a good sized contingent of his troops were of Irish extraction). The holiday pops up here and there in American history afterwards. It doesn't become the great spectacle we know today until the age of immigration - the St Patrick's Parade in New York, for instnace, began before the First World War, and even then was traceable back to the celebrations of the regiments of Irish cannon fodder that fought in the Union army during the Civil War (for a chilling image of that particular aspect of Irish history, I recommend some of the scenes from 'Gangs of New York', a film full of strange and disturbing visuals). It's interesting, because the holiday didn't become a national holiday in Ireland itself until 1905. In part, of course, this was simply because Ireland was still a colony of Great Britain (colony, protectorate, whatever, call it what you will), and displays of Irish patriotism were frankly frowned upon.
In part I think there is more to it than that - the Irish in New York were an interesting sort of immigrant, in many ways like, say, a Palestinian today. The Irish were refugees, nominal citizens of a nation that treated them as either amusing comics or terrifying beasts - Catholics in Ireland were, until the 19th century, not even allowed to learn to read and write. So where, say, a German immigrant had chosen to leave his nation behind, the Irish immigrants to America were still looking for their country - not for America, but for Ireland. Sinn Fein and other Irish revolutionary bodies had considerable financial backing from American Irish, and much of their leadership ended up New York for extended periods of time. So the Irish, in many ways, found Ireland wherever they went - and there thick cultural cohesivity showed this.
In good and bad ways. The reputation for St. Patrick's now as a drunken revel with no religious or cultural significance whatsoever is, in most of the states, not entirely undeserved. The only Irish products most Americans come into contact with, now, or Bushmills, Baileys, Jamesons, and Guinness. The only Irish stories they know are vague, highly distorted versions of the Leprachaun - a story which, in Ireland, was never even terribly significant really. This is completely acceptable in most of our minds, and jokes about Irish culture as being essentially concerned with alcohol are common and well-accepted - amongst those of Irish extraction even. Guinness puts up signs every year saying 'On March 17th, everyone is Irish', and that's not because they're encouraging people to read Lady Gregory.
I finished James Joyce's Ulysses today. Joyce himself was not shy about pointing about the more irritating edges of Irish culture. Drinking, in fact, is not a small part of Ulysses, and in Finnegan's Wake, Whisky is elevated to it's celtic etymological roots: usquebaugh, literally the 'water of life. Joyce, in fact, exiled himself from Ireland in large part because of his frustration with it's culture, and said many rather unpleasant things about Ireland over the years. At the same time, I mentioned in my review of Finnegan's Wake last year, I had a friend at Pearson who was born in Dublin, and she read Ulysses because it felt so much like home. In a sense, this is the forgotten context of St. Patrick's, and perhaps, in some little ways, it's redeeming message (I wonder, sometimes, if this is how Mardi Gras feels for New Orleansers) - that yes, there is a lot of faults in a culture, any culture, but that's because it's human - to make a holiday that only celebrates an idealized, sanitized vision of identity is just as pointless. You can do either on St. Patricks, you can elegize Ireland, or treat it as an excuse to get drunk and tell dirty limericks. Either will get you a host of sympathizers. And Ireland - or what we call Ireland, which is much more, and much less, than a country, is both of these things.
I am somewhat infamous for being dubious of holidays. But, I suppose, more than anything, this is what I learned from Joyce this time around - that Ulysses, like the real, three dimensional mundanity of every-day life that it seeks to enshrine, is messy. It is neither one thing or the other, it doesn't come to any conclusions. Real life doesn't have tidy stories and pretty characters - it has people. Which is so wonderful, and so terrible all at the same time. Real history does not have heroes and villains, good guys and bad guys. The sublime is ridiculous, but it's still sacred. The ribald is fun in the most wonderful, needful way, but it's also self-indulgetnt and ugly. Holidays are the same way - we mean them to celebrate these beautiful, grand ideas, btu they don't - in spite of us, they celebrate us exactly as we are. In some ways, that's very sad, and ugly. But in some ways - why celebrate angels that don't exist? Human beings are messy, but they're so, so beautiful.