Well, here we are again, March 17th and Saint Patrick's Day. I've been thinking about this day for almost a week already, starting about when I put my Ireland flag on the pole outside my house (so far it's attracted some attention but no stupid questions from the neighbors - I rather hope they either know what country it is from or they've gone home to google it). I've been trying to think of another holiday that we celebrate in North America that is fundamentally based on another country entirely, and I haven't been able to think of one. Christmas and Easter are religion based holidays, as opposed to relating to a specific country, and Valentines Day has been taken over by greeting card companies and chocolatiers. Halloween is really based on religion as well (All Hallow's Eve) but it isn't really about religion any longer. There is Oktoberfest, I suppose, but, really, how many people celebrate it? Now, it could be argued that Saint Patrick's Day is a religious holiday as well, but it's been a very long time since it was recognized as the feast day for a saint. In North America it's become all about pretending or believing you are Irish, drinking green beer, and occasionally painting your face like the Irish flag. What makes me marvel a bit, though, is that what we celebrate is a caricature of Irish culture, rather like the caricature of a leprechaun in the photo above. Ireland is not beer dyed green and boxer shorts with shamrocks, my friends. It is not "Kiss me, I'm Irish" tattoos on your face or green socks. Ireland is so much more.
When I was in Ireland an Irish friend who works in the tourism industry was telling me about "Irish cruises". These are cruise ships that sail from Florida and tour around the Caribbean, but they are Irish themed - meaning Irish musicians and food, Guinness and storytelling. He found the concept baffling and frankly so do I. If someone wants to experience Ireland why would they attempt to do so by taking a cruise on an American ship in the Caribbean? Sure, it might be less expensive than a trip to Ireland, but then again sniffing the air in a bakery is a lot cheaper than buying a donut - but what the hell is the point? It's just a simulation of the experience, not the real thing. It's like someone wanting to experience Canada so deciding to eat some poutine and see a Celine Dion concert in Vegas. All I could tell my Irish friend is that North Americans are actually a bit obsessed by Irish culture (as evidenced by how we embrace Saint Patrick's Day) but we don't really understand it. We think that we can find that culture on cruise ships in the Caribbean and in Irish themed Canadian sports bars. We think by wearing a green t-shirt on March 17th we've embraced the Irish. We have a suspicion that Ireland is something unique, but we aren't quite sure why we think so or what to do about it. So when this day rolls around we get a bit silly and start painting shamrocks on our faces and heading to the bar. It's a bit embarrassing, really(says the woman who flies the Ireland flag on her house and has a kid who is today decked entirely in green, dripping in shamrocks - her choice, not mine!).
So, I've said it before, and here I go again. On today of all days, though, when you are perhaps feeling most in touch with your inner Irish, I will tell you yet again - go to Ireland. Either rent a car and buy the most basic map (the kind that will require you to ask directions in every pub, restaurant, and hotel you visit, forcing you to speak to the locals), or, better yet, call these folks and get hooked up with a local driver. Learn about Ireland - the history, the people, the politics. Visit Blarney and Bunratty. Go to Kinsale and Cobh and Cashel. Stop in Cork and Galway and Dublin. Head into every tiny pub you can find, order a Guinness, and speak to every person who even looks at you. Embrace your true inner Irish soul by experiencing Ireland, not by drinking cheap Canadian lager dyed green. Don't bother with Irish-Caribbean cruises that will only disappoint with their faux-Irish "conviviality" (their word, not mine!). Instead book a seat on Aer Lingus and be charmed by the flight attendants with the cute little green hats. I promise you will come home proud of your native country but also in love with another that has captured your heart and soul. And when you return give me a call - I know where you can find great Ireland flags to fly on March 17th.
So, to my "Irish for a day" friends, and my "honest-to-goodness, for-real" Irish friends - Happy Saint Patrick's Day!