Happy St Patricks Day!

Lá Fhéile Pádraig Sona Duit! Happy St Patricks Day!

This is my sixtieth St Patricks Day. Things change. When I was a schoolchild, it was a day off school. A chance to wear a green sweater that my aunt had knit to go to Mass. In our teatotal home in West Belfast, there might be unflattering references to people who “drowned their shamrocks”…..who spoiled a national holiday and religious feast day by drinking alcohol.

As the 1960s became the 1970s, I became aware that Belfast and most of Norn Iron was not really a place to celebrate being Irish…publicly. While its certainly true that large gatherings at a time of civil war can be an opportunity/excuse for violence, it is also true that the Norn Iron authorities looked on any overt displays of Irishness as subversive. No parades.

Of courrse New York City was the place for parades. And while it had an original (Protestant) religious ethos in pre-independence North America, by the 19th century, the parades in New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago had become an opportunity to celebrate Irishness itself……an opportunity for the dock yard labourer and the domestic servant to become extremely visible in cities where they were deemed (at best) an embarrassment and (at worst) alien.

It is really only since the 1980s, that Ireland has fully adopted the St Patricks Day Parade. The nature of the Dublin Parade constantly evolves. The visiting American high school marching bands……our new citizens from Eastern Europe and West africa bring an axciting new dimension.

The Belfast Parade was in contrast an occasionally legal or illegal affair (depending on the security situation) along the Falls Road. The year 1997 was the first year that a Parade was allowed thru Belfast City Centre, past the City Hall. The Ardoyne Fleadh Committe have produced a postcard for that occasion…..a massive turnout. The downside was that no flags were “allowed”. Well that rule was of course enforceabe.

In Norn Iron we have the peculiar situation that the Irish Flag is deemed divisive. We can go “green” on St Patricks Day………but never “green white and orange”……at least not officially. The Irish Flag alienates unionists and Protestants who are also Irish. Thus the official images on television news tonight will show Norn Iron soldiers in British regiments (Royal Irish Rangers for example) being presented with shamrocks by a minor member of the British “Royal Family” at their barracks in Ballymena, County Antrim or on the “front line” in Afghanistan.

But how exactly can a “National Day” be ……inclusive? The solution in Norn Iron is a “lets get alongerist” approach…..where Irishness is reduced from the status of a nationality, a citizenship, ethnicity…..to a common denominator of inclusivity.

This is almost a necessity in the city of Armagh, associated with St Patrick and home of the two Cathedrals…..Catholic and Church of Ireland (Anglican) where the celebrations have always been cross community……..and in Downpatrick, County Down which has an even longer tradition of cross community celebration. Both Armagh and Downpatrick are overwhelmingly nationalist/Catholic/Irish.

Last year in Downpatrick there was a minor controversy when a Sinn Féin councillor wanted a more visible presence for the Irish Flag. I think the time has come for this to happen. There is no conceivable reason to find the Irish Flag “offensive”….on St Patricks Day. Genuine “lets get alongerists” should have no problem with that…..and frankly they are driving the faux inclusivity and sanitised version of St Patricks Day.

This year in Armagh, community cohesion is under pressure. A “rival” loyalist band celebration will take place…and it is difficult to see this as anything other than a coat-trailing exercise. Tensions will rise with alcohol consumption. Life imitates Art. The St Patricks Day episode of “The Simpsons” featured Green and Orange Parades in Springfield.

Taking the Irishness out of St Patricks Day?

Tensions will also be high in the “Holy Land” area of South Belfast. This network of streets (Cairo Street, Damascus Street, Palestine Street) is the Monday-Friday home of students attending Queens University. Mostly from Fermanagh, Armagh, Tyrone and Derry…..or to put it frankly nationalists/Catholicsiirish. And in recent years massive street parties have broken out………notably a full scale riot in 2009. These are not young people prepared to suppress their sense of Irishness for the greater good of “lets get alongerism”. They are “in your face….take it or leave it” I do of course deplore alcohol-fuelled vandalism………..but if you dont like it………YOU CAN KISS THEIR IRISH ASS.

Which is actually a very traditional way of celebrating St Patricks Day. The students in Damascus Street are behaving in exactly the same way as the New York, Boston and Chicago labourers and domestic servants….because these students……..our future teachers, lawyers and doctors are the true heirs of the Irish labouring classes. They demand to be visible. And it is a very generational thing…it took a certain assertion of cicil rights activism in the 1960s to change Norn Iron society. And the time has come for a further twist of the generational screw.


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