This time of year a decade ago, I celebrated a milestone birthday in Ireland over St. Patrick’s Day with my sister Melanie and seven friends. For most of us Americans, it was our first trip to the Emerald Isle. After years of celebrating St. Patrick in Chicago with Irish descendants –friends from high school (the Lynch family), plus half the city’s police force and a plumbers’ union that dyes the Chicago River green — we decided to see how the native Irish celebrate the occasion.
Note that Chicago was one of several U.S. cities to which many Irish, particularly oppressed Catholics, immigrated in the 1830s – a time of political, social and economic strife in Ireland – through The Great Famine (1845-52). Chicago was incorporated as a city in 1837 and by 1850, Irish immigrants accounted for one-fifth of its population. Today, about 6 percent of Chicagoans claim Irish descent.
Among them are plumbers that use a proprietary dye to turn the river bright green the Saturday on or before St. Patrick’s Day, amazingly, without killing a single fish. Ironically, it’s the same technique used to identify a source of sewage. On top, the colors of the Irish flag are borne out in the dyeing ceremony: plumbers wear white Tvyex jumpsuits and throw orange pellets in the river via small motorboats to turn the water green. It’s enough to make other U.S. cities green with envy; several have tried to replicate it with less success or fame. Clearly, the luck of the Irish (and a well-kept secret formula) are on the Windy City’s side.
For several years after university when I was working in Chicago, the Lynch clan, my friend Adrienne and I would celebrate St. Patrick’s Day in a 12-hour, green beer-drinking dance marathon. (Americans, please do not call it « St. Paddy’s Day » as « paddy » is a derogative British term for an Irishman.) We would start at an ungodly hour on a Saturday morning, watch the city’s parade with Irish cops boozing out of clandestine flasks, hang out with parading bagpipers in a nearby pub (where I always tried to play the bagpipes with little success), do an Irish pub crawl, then dance until we could barely move at a cheesy disco. Our high school buddy Pat, jokingly dubbed St. Pat, was our “Lynchpin” to the festivities every year around March 17.
“I’ve been a wild rover for many’s the year and I’ve spent all me money on whiskey and beer,” he and his sisters would crow to the famous tune by The Dubliners as Adi and I tried to lip sync.
Contrary to popular belief, unlike our “St. Pat,” St. Patrick was not Irish. In fact, he was British and taken prisoner by the Irish at age 16. After six years, he escaped and returned to Britain. Ironically, he had a dream in which an angel told him to return to Ireland as a missionary. Following religious studies, St. Patrick did just that.
Using his knowledge of Irish language and culture, he customed his Catholic teachings to appeal to his Celtic captors. For example, he superimposed the sun, a Celtic symbol, onto the Christian cross, which became known as the Celtic cross. And he used the three-leaf clover (shamrock), a national symbol, to explain the Holy Trinity.
St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin, the largest of its kind in Ireland as well as the national cathedral of the Church of Ireland, is a testament to the saint’s success in converting Celts to Catholicism. His legacy even spread to Chicago; its Old St. Patrick’s Church is one of the few buildings that survived the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 (ironically, started by a cow of Irish immigrants that knocked over a lantern). Today, it is the oldest public building in the city.
Storytelling is also a rich part of Irish heritage. As a result, the story of St. Patrick became embellished over time (he did not drive snakes out of Ireland) and Irish-Americans colloquialized terms for immigrant nationalism. For example, “Erin go Bragh,” well said on St. Patrick’s Day, is the Anglicization of an Irish language phrase meaning “Ireland till the end of time.”
For my birthday in Ireland, my clever friend Noelle created green T-shirts with the phrase “Ang go Bragh” on the front and “troublin’ in Dublin” on the back. Yes, we had the T-shirt to prove our Irish connection. (A few years later, Ancestry DNA revealed that I do authentically have 5 percent Irish heritage.)
Dublin has an incredible parade that’s whimsical and creative, not political and commercial like Chicago’s. Both cities serve up an unbelievable amount of beer, but in Ireland, it is not dyed green, partly because the color would not do darker beers like Guinness justice. More importantly, the Irish will not allow their cherished beer to be tainted, whereas light American beer becomes “special” when it’s green. Dance marathons occur in both cities, but Irish jigs are a lot more serious in Dublin. In fact, they are like a sobriety test. Bagpipers are also common denominators but fiddlers in bars in Dublin inspire extra foot-stomping. Chicago only trumps Dublin with its green river but the charm of the native Irish outshines it.
Equally iconic is Guinness beer on St. Patrick’s Day. “Having a pint with the gals and lads” is imperative and the Guinness Storehouse in Dublin has a blow-out celebration with five days of Irish music, food, dance and beer pouring lessons. I remember the difficulty of properly pouring the dark, frothy beer and saying “oh my Guinness” when whisked around by strangers to trad music. The Irish are inherently friendly, so numerous pints of Guinness “top them up.”
My local, Irish buddy George served as a bouncer of sorts, but he could not manage six women at once. Alas, we had to fend for ourselves with locals who joked “kiss me, I’m Irish.” (This phrase comes from the legend of the Blarney Stone, believed to bring luck and cleverness to those who kiss it.)
The celebration continued with a “melée in Galway,” a coastal town on the other side of Ireland, two hours west by train. There, the pubs were more intimate and locals more curious. I remember being “hurled” by a Galway hurler about the dance floor at a nightclub. Not to be upstaged by the Irish, my British friend Ming got down on the dance floor, literally. This is the same person who surprised me in Galway unannounced with a ukulele.
“You’re in the land of music so you must carry an instrument,” he said.
And so, it was. My ukulele traveled with me from coast to coast. I did leave it behind to see the beautiful Cliffs of Moher and Connemara horse country. But otherwise, I “played” the part of a wandering minstrel. It was bad enough to drive the snakes out of Ireland.
But just as St. Patrick had been immortalized as an “Irishman,” I embellished my scant Irish heritage that week in the Emerald Isle. After all, I had the T-shirt to prove it.