Sunday, March 18, 2007

How Green is My Guinness

Here is the full text of my St Pat's day screed, which got an interesting mix, mostly of supportive comments, apart from the few determined to prove its point about bigotry... some of whom had clearly not read past the headline.

March 16, 2007 8:30 PM

As we approach St Patrick's Day, it's possible to buy Kerrygold Irish butter in all its yellow-salty-artery-clogging glory in New York. But it's small reward for the outrageous tribalistic shamrockery that will accompany it - including the ubiquitous Bailey's Cream that is made with what's left of the milk when the butter is churned away.

I remember a friend from Dublin hooting when a waiter in a second avenue Irish bar offered the corned beef and cabbage that is passed off as traditional St Patrick's Day fare. "For God's sake man, I came thousands of miles to get away from that crap."

Stout is difficult to dye, but many bars will tint their lesser beers green, and as the St Patrick's Day parade meanders up the spine of Manhattan, filling Fifth Avenue with an emerald flood, it commemorates the days when it was, to say the least, very useful to be Irish to get a city job in New York. In a city where public drunkenness is actually quite rare - at least compared with Saturday night in any British town - the bars will be teeming with firefighters and cops in advanced states of leglessness.

That binge drinking could explain the website which declares, without blinking, that the first parades were held in 1766 - and in 1762.

There will of course be some interesting adoptive Irish-Americans leading the parade: running for any office in the Tri-State area is sufficient to qualify. Sixteen presidents are proudly billed as Irish Americans - but only one, Kennedy, would actually qualify under the strict terms of the devoutly Catholic Irish fraternity that organises the event. Fifteen of them were Protestants.

Indeed, some devout souls were very unhappy when the 1996 Parade nominated Baptist Bill Clinton, an abortion rights supporter, as "Irish American of the year".

Which moves on naturally to the point that of the much touted forty million
Irish Americans, more than half were Protestant and Scotch-Irish, and ancestrally as much inclined to toot the flute in an Orange Day march as to play the (Scottish) pipes in a St Patrick's day parade organised by a somewhat clerically dominated group of Irish Romanists. (Though if Bob Jones alumnus Ian Paisley's opinions on buggery in Belfast are any indication, some of the Orange order may well be close an brothers with those bigoted Ancient Hibernians who fought so long and hard to keep gays out of the march.)

Indeed, they have been so successful that Christine Quinn, the lesbian Speaker of New York City Council, is flying to Dublin to take part in its more tolerant parade because the Hibernians will not let overtly gay organisations march in New York. It is symptomatic of the difference between the actual Irish and the more embittered fossilized Fenians of the diaspora.

New York Irish may argue that theirs is the original parade (at some risk of a donnybrook with the Bostonians), but they have to contend with its inconveniently concrete origins in the British Army Irish regiments stationed in colonial New York.

Unwittingly, generations of exiled Irish nationalists have flaunted the Scottish kilt and the Highland bagpipes, alive in the illusion that they were part of the Irish republican tradition. But then tartanry was a Walter Scott-inspired romantic invention that only preceded by a century or so the Irish shamrockery of kilts and pipes.

Inconveniently, St Patrick himself was a Welshman, or at least a Romano-British aristocrat from the British west coast, kidnapped by Irish slave traders. That makes him a Celt, of sorts, and these things have become pan-Celtic talismans, so there are even Welsh kilts now, which is at least an improvement on the pseudo-Druidic bedsheets of the Eisteddfodau. So many of our "timeless" national traditions are figments of nineteenth century romanticism and deserve far less respect than they get.

St Patrick's Day parade should revert to its more ecumenical origins. As well as dispensing with the bigotry, my personal wish would be to celebrate progress in Northern Ireland by inviting some of the Orange Lodge bands over. Once those New York police bands hear the Orangemen's resonant Lambeg drum - it won't be long before they adopt them with the pipes and unleash the world's two most fiercesome instruments of war to echo around the canyons of Manhattan.

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