St. Patrick’s Day is special for different groups of people for different reasons. For many Americans, when 3/17 arrives, we don something green, head to the pubs, chow down corned beef and cabbage, listen to rousing Irish music, and share stories and laughs with good friends. For others, mainly Irish-Americans and native “old sodders,” the day has significant religious connotations. It’s both a feast day and the anniversary of their patron saint’s death in the 5th century. For centuries, St. Patrick’s Day found Irish Catholics attending Mass in the morning and celebrating in the afternoon. The latter was especially enjoyable since Lenten prohibitions against consuming meat were waived, allowing celebrants to dine on a repast of Irish bacon and cabbage.
Down the road, the occasion morphed into a singularly religious occasion. Irish pubs were mandated by law to close that day until the 1970s. It wasn’t until 1995 that the government decided to “loosen up” by initiating a national campaign to use the holiday as an opportunity to drive tourism and showcase the Emerald Isle to the world at large. Subsequently, hundreds of thousands of people have attended a St. Patrick’s Festival in Dublin featuring parades, concerts, theater productions, and fireworks.
Locally and elsewhere, another special group, children, can’t wait for the 17th because, to paraphrase a famous song’s lyrics, children love a parade. Factually, the first such parade originated not in Ireland but right here in the U.S. Irish soldiers in the English military marched through New York City on March 17, 1762. With the rise of the “Irish Aid” societies (e.g., Hibernian) and, following the potato famine migration of the 1840s, the emergence of the Irish as a political force, the parade evolved into a gala replete with bagpipes, bass drums, baton twirling colleens, political hopefuls pandering for votes and more (Utica’s version years past).
The topic of parades reminds me of another American tradition (and song)-the Easter Parade. A few years ago, a quirk in the calendar had St. Pat’s and Easter occurring within a week of each other. For people who view St. Patrick’s as a day to celebrate Irish history and culture, the aforementioned quirk was ironic. To them, Easter has great symbolic and real significance.
On Monday, April 24, 1916, the Rising occurred. About 1,200 Freedom Fighters, led by the young poet-warrior Padraig Pearse, took over a few buildings in downtown Dublin, issued their Declaration of Independence from a repressive British control, and put their lives on the line to remove the colonial boot from Irish soil. Badly out-numbered and out-gunned, the rebels were defeated in five days. Between May 3 and May 15, the Brits executed 16 men, including Pearse, his brother William, fellow poets Tom MacDonagh and Joseph Plunkett, and the Labor leader James Connolly. While their ‘Rising failed to stir the people to action at that time, their deaths helped spark a series of events (e.g., the Irish-British War) which culminated in the birth of the Irish Republic in 1947.
MacDonagh’s rose, symbolic of a united Ireland in his poems, but for one black petal (Ulster), had reddened into bloom. In the martyr’s wake, Easter 1916 became the theme of numerous writings (Yeats’ poem by the same name the most famous) and ballads (e.g., performed often by local Irish balladeer Vince Colgan). Their sacrifices gave a profound definition to the concept-courage of one’s convictions.
As stated at the outset, St. Patrick’s Day means different things to different people; a multi-faceted occasion at once joyous and solemn, and instructive. For me, that particular year, with St. Pat’s and Easter so close, I was reminded of the poem Pearse’s mother asked him to write for her as if she was speaking. Penned hours before he was shot and titled, simply, “Mother,” Padraig’s writing is not only a eulogy to the brothers Pearse but to every mother’s son who shed his life’s blood for a cause greater than himself. It reads in part:
I do not grudge them; Lord I do not grudge
My two strong sons that I have seen go out
To break their strength and die, they and a few,
In bloody protest for a glorious thing…
Lord, Thou art hard on mothers;
We suffer in their coming and their going;
And tho’ I grudge them not, I weary, weary
Of the long sorrow-and yet I have my joy;
My sons were faithful, and they fought.
So this year, when you’re hoisting a few and crooning Too-Ra-Loo-Ra-Loo-Ral, take a moment to say a prayer for the souls of the men and women who paid for the creation of a free, independent, democratic Ireland with their blood. Erin Go Bragh!