Friday, March 14, 2008
Come as you are
The idea that everyone is Irish for the day on March 17 is one of many reasons that Saint Patrick’s Day has evolved into a general cultural holiday – one in which any and all are welcome to be participants, not merely spectators to the festivities. Extended families and friends, cheerleaders, politicians, and baton twirlers will march in parades, wave balloons on sidewalks, brine beef, chop cabbage, peel potatoes, wear silly hats and drink green beer in celebration of . . . what, exactly?
About 34 million Americans claim Irish roots, and millions of them will be joined on Monday in the streets and living rooms of cities across the country by immigrants and their descendants from Poland, Sweden, Russia and Africa, even England, to eat, drink, sing and dance to emotional folk music about drinking, eating, death, whiskey, fighting, drinking, death, and ducks. Those who have never heard of Nell Flaherty’s drake or Tim Finnegan’s wake may learn all the words, sing along with fervor for the night and then, like Johnny McEldoo, go home in the wee hours to ruminate on the spree, sleep it off, and forget all the words again until next year.
No one has yet satisfactorily explained why it is that a love song and bitter curse narrated by an old woman about her pet duck routinely reduces people to tears. But it does, and it will. In bars and living rooms, kitchens and back porches all around Boston and everywhere else tears will be shed, fights will be had, and profound truths about life will be, if not fully grasped, at least glimpsed.
For instance, as Nell reveals, we will learn the proper response to one who would sacrifice loyalty, love, and beauty for the quick satisfaction of sensual desire:
May his pig never grunt, may his cat never hunt,
May a ghost ever haunt him at dead of the night;
May his hens never lay, may his horse never neigh,
May his goat fly away like an old paper kite.
That the flies and the fleas may the wretch ever tease,
May the piercing March breeze make him shiver an’ shake;
May a lump of a stick raise the bumps fast and thick
On the monster that murdered Nell Flaherty’s drake.
Songs like this (along with Whiskey You’re the Devil, The Moonshiner, Finnegan’s Wake, the list goes on) derive their comic shine not least from the luster of true insight about life that shines through -- the lasting comforts (and real miseries) of family, work, friendship, and loss. The question is still unanswered however. What is it exactly that all of these people in green are celebrating on March 17? Or, perhaps more to the point, why does anyone outside of a small core of tribal aesthetes care about the almost certainly inaccurate death date of an uncanonized British evangelical Christian who was kidnapped by Irish raiders 1600 years ago?
The beer, yes. Certainly the beer is important. But that’s not enough to explain standing for hours on the frigid and windy sidewalks of South Boston with seven or eight runny-nosed and freezing kids to cheer 30 separate versions of Saint Mary of the Hills Sacred Heart of Holy Name Knights of Columbus’ Most Precious Blood’s CYO marching band and color guard. Was that Representative Feeney marching with Councilor Carlucci or was it Mayor Mahoney? Who cares? I don’t think anyone does. The bands are loud and stirring, the veterans quietly dignified, the children wholesome, and the politicians dutiful on their waving rounds. Parades are fun and ethnic and nostalgic, and corned beef and cabbage is actually quite delicious, but what really draws Americans to the celebration of Saint Patrick’s Day is the palpable graciousness of its invitation to all: Come as you are.
Inclusiveness is not necessarily the first trait that springs to mind in reference to historically parochial ethnic groups like Irish Americans, but the open houses all along Broadway and the streets surrounding the parade route in South Boston proclaim a welcome to the outside world that is equal parts boast, blarney and bacchanal: “This is how we do it!” is the message. The paradoxical thing about urban ethnic enclaves is that there are no smaller towns in all the bucolic countryside than the parishes and turfs of a big city.
In the small corner of Boston where I grew up there were at least ten distinct parishes and each one was a sovereign territory. Not that there was warfare among the parishes, there wasn’t (well, small skirmishes yes), but the borders were adamantly fixed and inherently meaningful. Everyone knew the difference between people from Saint Margaret’s and people from Saint Brendan’s, even if putting those differences into words would have been impossible – you didn’t have to explain it, you just knew.
Perhaps being crowded in apartments that weren’t quite big enough and circumscribed in small neighborhoods with borders as real as God forced us to learn that the people you live with and the streets of the place where you live are permanent. The small towns inside big cities go about their business outside of the purview of planning boards and book clubs and parent associations, and, unregulated, they are also mostly unencumbered by the weight of social pretension and the loneliness of social exclusion.
Like our religion, we didn’t choose our neighborhoods -- we were born into them, so we never had to prove our insider status by identifying and excluding outsiders. This explanation of the underlying value of celebrating Saint Patrick’s Day may be a description of small-town city life that is too neat and oversimplified.
But the boisterous welcome of sing-along-loving beer drinkers who are prone to fits of melancholy and sentimentality brought on by songs about ducks always makes me proud to be Irish. Especially on March 17, when, ironically, we can all be Irish together for a day. ∆
© 2008 The Carlisle Mosquito