St Patrick’s Day In “No Man’s Land”

This is a Word Press blog. Every day, Word Press supplies me with statistics, telling me where “Keeping An Eye On The Czar of Russia” is read. As you might expect, it is read in Ireland, Britain and United States. But on most days there are about twelve other nations. It is variable…but typically this Blog is read in Australia, Luxembourg, Germany, Italy, Israel and Belgium. Occasionally in other nations. But wherever you are …Happy St Patrick’s Day and if there is something “Irish” going on in your part of the world today, I hope you enjoy it.

But spare a thought for those of us for whom the St Patrick’s Day experience is more….limited. Especially those of us who live in “No Man’s Land”….Norn Iron.

St Patrick’s Day is of course a Christian Feast Day. Honouring our “national saint”.

But the St Patrick’s Day parades are essentially an “American” thing. Seventeenth century and arguably “Protestant” in origin…there are competing claims as to origin. But really it was the Catholic Irish-Americans who instigated the parades we see today. In mid nineteenth century New York, Philadelphia and Boston, the Irish were a despised minority. Fresh off the boats, uneducated, barely alive and escaping one horror for another. It was a long climb to Respectability and John F Kennedy in the White House….the domestic servants tamed the railroad workers…taught them to drink tea politely from china cups.

And the domestic servants, railroad workers, longshore men and garment workers had their annual day of Defiance.

And of course too much sentimentality and stereotyping attached to it.

In Belfast, it was just a religious thing. In the early 1960s, Uncle Jackie went to New York for a few days and saw the Big Parade. He never stopped talking about it. And I guess there ere thousands like him. Effectively the Republic of Ireland started “importing” St Patrick’s Day….and it has grown. Now Dublin is the place to be. Or any Irish town or any Irish village.

And we have impoved it. A key feature of St Patrick’s Day now is the part played by new Irish citizens, who were born in Poland, Czech Republic, Nigeria, Somalia, Syria and Iraq…all over the world. The Face of Ireland. And the Sound of Ireland has changed a lot in my lifetime.

And we have re-exported St Patrick’s Day. It is no longer about the Irish diaspora in traditional places like United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, England, Scotland and Wales. It is not even about the Irish diaspora in “new” places like Luxembourg, Belgium, Germany and China. As the Leaning Tower of Pisa and the worlds tallest building in Dubai goes “green” for the day, it is actually a celebration of something beyond being Irish. Is there really a nation that has exported its “attitude” more thoroughly than Ireland? And it has not been done at the point of a gun. It is something of which to be proud.

Yet the one place where Irishness has not been exported (so to speak) is into Norn Iron.

In the 1960s we watched Mrs Windsor’s mother …the old drunken “Queen Mother” hand out shamrocks to the (British) Irish Guards. In the 1970s some minor “royal” would travel to Ballymena to hand out shamrocks to the (British) Ulster Defence Regiment.

St Patrick’s Grave in Downpatrick….in the grounds of the (Protestant) Church of Ireland Cathedral would be blessed by a Church of Ireland bishop. It felt slightly bizarre for while St Patrick and his Cathedrals at Downpatrick and Armagh pre-date the Reformation by nearly one thousand years, he also pre-dates the English invasions of Oreland by five hundred years. He was not of course Irish….but to Irish Catholics like ourselves it seemed that he belonged more to the natives than the planters.

There was no St Patricks Day parade thru central Belfast, then the jewel in the crown of British unionism. The Parade was confined to our West Belfast ghetto….certainly political as much as religious in tone. And often illegal. And often in their barracks at Springfield Road, Andersonstown and Woodburn, the old RUC and British Army kept a low profile.

It was the 1990s before a St Patricks Day parade was allowed past the City Hall in Belfast. There were stern warnings largely ignored that the Irish National Flag would not be displayed.

Nowadays the Parade is largely in control of LetsGetAlongerism. The celebrations must be inclusive. But can any “national day” be fully inclusive? Can a parade celebrating Irishness be inclusive of those (unionists) who claim that their Irishness is a component of their Britishness and that the Irish National Flag is alien to them? Do we concede too much in allowing this contradiction?

Many people in the LetsGetAlongerist community will be vying for the hottest tickets in the social calendar in July. The garden party at the United States Consulate to celebrate American Independence and the garden party at the French Consulate to celebrate Bastille Day. The hypocrites will not object to the American Flag on the basis that it is offensive to New York “tories”, the descendants of Benedict Arnold or those Americans whose first fealty is the Confedracy. The hypocrites will not object to the French tricolere on the basis that it is offensive to French monarchists.

Is it really possible to celebrate Cinquo de Mayo in the United States and object to the Flag of Mexico? I dont think so.

And yet Belfast prides itself on its official diversity….Chinese New Year, Hindu Festivals…..

The City of Belfast and Norn Iron as a whole have a problem with Irishness. Aspects….music, dance are accepted but the the Irish Nation is the sum total of ALL our aspects. We should be entitled to celebrate it all.

If the Irish National Flag is not regarded as offensive ….today in London, England or Burnos Aires, Argentina or New York, USA or Tokyo, Japan….it cannot be marginalised in Belfast.





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1 Response to St Patrick’s Day In “No Man’s Land”

  1. John McMahon says:

    During the period 1973 to 1977, the Eire government, led by Liam Cosgrave, imported St Patrick’s Day from the USA. They were trying to replace Easter Week with St Patrick’s Day, trying to replace Patrick Pearse with St Patrick.

    It was a silly caper for the following reasons.

    A government which included anti-Catholics like Justin Keating, Garret Fitzgerald and Conor Cruise O’Brien was not well placed to promote a 26 county nationalism based on Catholicism. This was highlighted when Mr Cosgrove voted in the Dail against his own government’s Bill to legalise contraceptives. [One cannot hunt with the anti-Catholic hounds and, at the same time, run with the Catholic hare.]

    I am not sure that it was wise to try to promote a nationalism based on religion at a time when religious belief was in decline.

    I am not sure that, at any time in history, an international religion like Catholicism could ever be an effective basis for any nation’s sense of identity. [Hinduism might do it for India.]

    I would also question the wisdom of trying to promote a 26 county patriotism based on Catholicism when, just across the State’s northern frontier, a tribal war, with religious undertones (and sometimes religious overtones), was waging. I think it was no coincidence that the most blatantly sectarian actions of Republicans (Kingsmills and Dartley) were carried out when Fine Gael’s policy of surrender to Ulster Protestant tribalism was in full flow. The Ulster Protestant sectarian murder campaign was seen to be succeeding. Sectarian murder is a game two tribes can play.

    Anyway, the attempt to replace a nationalist celebration day with a religious celebration day failed. But the 17th March celebrations have their uses – as a tourism promotion exercise aimed at the ethnic market at an off-peak part of the tourist year.

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