One evening a couple of years ago, I was sitting at my desk in Ireland when the e-mail pinged.
It was from my wife. Nothing unusual there.
That is, until I opened her message and saw what was inside. It was a photo of a Labrador — large, fluffy and sprayed a kind of luminescent, hi-vis shade of green.
Minutes later, the inbox pinged again. This time the e-mail contained startling images of an Irish Elvis, complete with angled quiff and shamrock decorations on his spangled Vegas outfit. Another picture showed a pint of beer dyed to a lurid, biliously green.
By now, of course, I cottoned on to what was happening. The date was March 17. My wife was standing in a St. Paul skyway, gazing at the St. Patrick’s Day Parade on the avenue below.
The messages were intended to send me a little cheer. I was stuck in Belfast, winding up our personal affairs, while she was working an exciting new job in the Twin Cities. I was eager to join her.
“Welcome to St. Patrick’s Day, American-style!” the e-mails seemed to trumpet. “A whole new way of doing things awaits you!”
New indeed. In all my puff (as we say back in Belfast), I’d never seen a dog dyed green, or any Hound Dog boasting Irish credentials.
As for squirting artificial coloration into a fellow’s pint of porter — well, that was the ultimate desecration.
How had these abominations occurred? Why had America splashed its tawdry commercialism and showbiz antics all over Ireland’s hallowed St. Patrick’s Day celebration? Could I really live in such a barbarously inclined nation?
These and other dark thoughts swirled in my brain as I started clicking around the internet for explanations.
And here is what I quickly learned: I was holding the wrong end of the stick entirely.
Turns out, the modern St. Patrick’s Day Parade originated in the United States, not on the streets of “dear dirty Dublin,” as Ireland’s greatest novelist James Joyce once put it.
The first parade took place in New York City in 1762, 14 years before the Declaration of Independence was signed. The event was organized by a bunch of homesick Irish patriots and soldiers serving in the British military.
In that first New York parade, Irish songs were sung, pipers played their pipes, green clothing was sported and the Irish language spoken. These traditions persist.
By the time the first St. Patrick’s parade unfolded in Ireland, in 1903, the template for celebrating the day was firmly established. Essentially, we in Ireland started imitating what Americans had been doing for well over a century.
Not all the imitation has been welcome. Go to a modern St. Patrick’s Day Parade in Dublin, for example, and you’re as likely to see an American-style marching band — complete with majorettes and sousaphones — as a band of traditional Irish pipers.
Pointless cultural dilution? Just a little.
Controversy has also fumed in recent years about the negative stereotyping of Irish people in American St. Patrick’s Day celebrations. You probably know the kind of thing — idiotic leprechaun costumes and T-shirts emblazoned with messages such as “I may not be Irish, but I can drink like one.”
The Ancient Order of Hibernians, one of the largest Irish organizations in the U.S., took exception to these allegedly demeaning garments, and asked Wal-Mart (one of the outlets selling them) for an apology.
With all due respect to the Hibernians, that seems a bit of an overreaction. We Irish have always been, for better or worse, perfectly happy telling jokes about ourselves.
I’ve been a Minnesota resident for all of two years. Now that the cultural shock has subsided, I personally find it easier to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day here than I ever did in Ireland.
It’s not easy being green in Northern Ireland (the part of the United Kingdom where I grew up), where the St. Patrick’s Day Parade was a predominantly Catholic affair. Northern Protestants like me found the event a little alien. It served as yet another symbol of anti-Britishness on an island long disrupted by conflicts over land, religion and nationality.
Here in the U.S., I sense little or none of that political, sectarian sentiment. Here I can simply take pride in being an Irishman while celebrating my countrymen’s achievements in this immense patchwork of a country.
No, I won’t be spray-painting our Irish-born dog Buddy anytime soon. Nor will I be doctoring my glass of Minnesotan craft porter (just as good as Guinness, incidentally) with a slime-green additive.
I have, though, learned to love the American way of honoring St. Patrick. For all its occasional zaniness, the holiday tells an immigrant’s tale with joy. It celebrates an uprooted folk who arrived here and gradually hewed a position of well-being and respectability. This strikes me as a good message for these troubled American times.
Sláinte! Enjoy St. Patrick’s Day 2017, whatever your origin or nationality.
Terry Blain writes about classical music and theater.