There’s a great scene in The Simpsons with a St. Patrick’s day parade: a float in the shape of a book called the “Drunken Irish Authors of Springfield” rolls by, and the drunken writers jump off and start fighting with the crowd. One of them looks suspiciously like James Joyce. Things get out of hand of course, children get drunk and the rest of the episode is largely a prohibition romp. Meanwhile, commentator Kent Brockman rhetorically asks if this is how we think of the Irish.
Now, I appreciate the representative comedy playing on the myth of Irish drunkenness, but when the myth of the Irish as liable to drink and violence is so close to the comedy; or rather, when the myth is real and the comedy doesn’t warrant further argument, then you’ve got to wonder about this funny little nation and its problem with drink. Certainly not all of its writers are or were drunk all of the time.
When I first came to Dublin, I had long expected the Irish experience of St. Patrick’s Day to be somewhat bigger and more essential a celebration than anywhere else in the world. I know that Irish Americans love to put on a parade and dye their rivers green. In Sydney, every Irish pub is awash with green t-shirts, flip-flops, and those people claiming the remotest bloodline as proud Irish heritage. The parade and the celebrations in Dublin, the mother lode of Irishness, should’ve been like St. Patrick Day Prime, I had thought. And in some ways it was, as a national celebration and a three-day party centered around the parade and the pub and a no doubt profitable deluge of Guinness. But it was also the fulfillment of Kent Brockman’s indictment: ‘All this drinking, violence, destruction of property.’ The sad fact is that the problems associated with St. Patrick’s Day celebrations around the world are actually a little more concentrated in Ireland.
To be honest I couldn’t enjoy the parade to the full. Firstly, I had an injury, which seriously restricted my movement and stamina (and which also means I don’t have any personal stories of beery excess to regale you with). Secondly, I wasn’t wise enough to bring my own ladder like the seasoned parade-watchers; a ladder provides an essential advantage in a crowd five or more deep, but a comical disadvantage on the bus ride home. I took my position at O’Connell and Henry Streets, next to the smirking, leaning statue of James Joyce, and took in the restless sea of people.
I was surrounded by kids with their faces or whole heads painted orange, white and green; street vendors selling little clumps of shamrock to place in lapels which, from a distance, looked like a clump of weeds stuck to people’s clothing. People wore oversize novelty hats, Guinness t-shirts, and wore costumes ambivalently conceived between an overweight leprechaun or a derivative St. Patrick with staff and suspiciously flushed visage. That is, every sight was awash in green; and everywhere pervaded the unholy smell of alcoholic breath.
The parade passed with a lot of noise and buzz; first a marching band and then a float with a gigantic butterfly hoisted up high (symbolism or function unknown), and a dramatic dance performance to the beat of bongos in line with the Madness and Mayhem theme. It’s an incredibly difficult parade to actually see properly or stay patient with for long because of the thronging Dublin crowds, which were sometimes about seven deep. Only those with a privileged hotel room or a view from the office windows along the route could see the parade from the best vantage point. Everyone else just walked around and took photos of the crowd or headed into the nearest pub where others were already gearing up for a long day of drinking. Some pub-goers had clearly been on a bender for at least two days already and looked decidedly uncomfortable when they re-emerged into the bright daylight.
It wasn’t until the day after St. Patrick’s that the nastier side-effects of the festivities became apparent: 714 people were arrested across the country for drunkenness and public disorder. There were several fights, three stabbings, and a shooting incident in Dublin. A quarter of the arrests in Galway alone were related to underage drinking (but I think it’s highly probable the vast majority of incidents involving teenage alcohol abuse went unrecorded; underage binge drinking is a major problem here). There was what the Irish Times called a ‘mini-riot’ in Limerick, and Northern Ireland had its share of street violence, disorder, and injury. Four people decided to vent whatever fun or frustration they were experiencing by smashing 25 windows of a Dublin DART train, and there were other violent incidents on the trains involving passengers, conductors, and drivers. The passengers just started fighting among themselves.
Not to be outdone, on the other side of the world, 11 revelers were arrested in Buenos Aires when they tried to rummage up a supermarket. In Australia, on a lighter note, the worst that happened was the State Premier for Queensland getting mooned at the parade. But what a day. All in celebration of the patron saint of Ireland: a celebration of binge drinking and weedy shamrocks.
One could chew the fat about what it really means to be Irish in the face of all this drunken disorder, and how Ireland is certainly living up to its infamous reputation as the Saint rolls metaphorically over in his grave. St Patrick, you’ll remember, is famous not so much for introducing Christianity to Ireland as popularising it through many key conversions and his canny idea of analogising the Holy Trinity with the three-petalled shamrock. He wasn’t a brewing monk, mind you, so I’m not exactly clear what his relation to alcohol is. It seems that binge drinking is now more like the undiagnosed national disease than a controllable social phenomenon.
Instead of wondering about these things, though, I began to think how a truly representative (and relatively modern) Irishman like James Joyce would’ve viewed this annual, public spectacle of drunkenness. The modern drinking phenomenon that is St. Patrick’s Day was certainly less of a spectacle in the early 20th century when he was forming his Irish world-view, so he might have fresh eyes for the event.
Standing next to his bronze likeness on Henry Street, and certainly not being drunk, I decided to channel his ghost from where it was preoccupied and busy working in a pub in Skerries, an old seaside resort area 40 minutes north of Dublin. To my ear his voice crackled with the shrill squawk of old 78 records, his squinting bad eye bewildered at finding itself solidly cast in bronze. We shared an interior monologue; I asked him what he could see of the parade as it passed in the distance.
Streamers and bunting. Shaven children with tricolour faces. Ample perambulators stopstarting: mothers’ talk and conference: names remembered and passed along. Remember me to him. A net of souls each pushing hungry babes in sunlight: same boat and ocean we inhabit. Orange white and bolder green, thinlegged urchins tearing through a crowd. Not so long from swaddling clothes, six of them conspire for a trinket: all eyes on the prize: all heeding mother’s cries at Angelus. And yet what is to come is not so long before . . . Circle of life.
Are you more convinced of the aesthetic value of the spectacle?
Who this leaning lad with limp and quoting mockery? I’ve ten rounds on order to be dragged away for a pun and piffle. Some misquoted afterlife in Errorland.
(I must admit that quoting Joyce in his own manner seemed the best way of getting myself across. Though if you’ve ever been quoted direct to your face, you’d know it’s very uncomfortable. Especially if you’re a stickler for detail and know they’ve got it slightly wrong. Nonetheless his voice-within-a-ghost-within-a-statue temporarily imbued with sentient power forgave my slight lapses of precise memory and traces of un-Irish accent.)
What discrete succession of images do you meanwhile perceive? Do you still drink?
A mass, a swirl of massing people half happy and halfdrunken as they move to see then move against the tide. A pub claims them for its frothy depths and brine. A smoky bellows guards the door where money sinks in pints. Throw. It. Up. Drinkoffering. Live on beery smells they do. What’s in a beer: a name like porter. Twopence a pint. Good for sick children’s bones and old cod’s pins. My breakfast of rashers and Guinness’s. A genetic fact of diet entwined in ages. There’s money to export the stuff: expert medicine to the world shipped in vats and clunking metal hulls. Whiskey beer and wine given their parade, is all I see: a crowd parade in parallel proven scientifically by intoxication. A fanfare for this shamrock isle of dreadful thirst. Not the drink that claims these souls, but souls by legal means and tender claim their drink. To each their accord: new money buys more beer.
And that was all he had to say summed up rather nicely as his voice lifted from audiophonic connection to my bewildered mind and drifted back to his own private scribbler’s afterlife. So I hobbled home, dodging the patches of sickness colouring the pavement. It’s still a mystery to me what the Patron Saint’s celebration is really celebrating, but it’s a question best not mulled over too deeply. My bet is that the great Irishmen of the past would only be slightly bewildered anyway. It’s in the genes.