Drunks in green attire swarm around a sticky bar table. Their Guinnesses are half full. Nearby a group of girls wear low cut singlets that read 'Kiss me I'm Irish.'
One of the men reaches for another swig of the dark dry stout. He brushes his leprechaun wig to the side of his face and admits: 'I didn't think it would taste like this.' His friend shrugs and replies 'Let's get a Tooheys next round.'
Saint Patrick's Day is one day a year where 'everyone is Irish'. I could try and explain how this is cultural appropriation but, judging from the size of my own family, I can see how the statement could be true.
The holiday itself is so laden in myths it's hard to work out what we're celebrating. My grandfather told me Patrick was a saint because he drove the frogs and snakes out of Ireland. He also told me if I stepped in a fairy ring while we were on our walks I'd disappear forever. So naturally as I grew older, I became skeptical.
My own family includes my parents, three siblings, 12 aunts and uncles and 28 first cousins. Growing up we never worried much about second cousins because there's too many to remember.
St Patrick's Day was always celebrated with my father's side of the family. The day for me would always begin as the sun rose. It started with just a plain white shirt and simple dance skirt. By the age of 15 I'd be fake tanning, applying copious amounts of makeup and securing a wig in place with hundreds of hair pins. We even glued our socks into place on our legs.
It was no drunken jig in a bar, it was years of training and set dances being passed down through generations of Irish dancers. Irish dancing can often be seen in the parades around Australia and I used to always dance at the Sydney one. I loved being up on the float and waving to my family in their green T-shirts on the roadside.
The dancing, just like the holiday, has its roots in both the culture and history of Ireland. Apparently the reason we dance with our hands by our sides has its roots in puritanical times. Unfortunately today there's very little romance to be had on stage in between the hairspray and compulsory smiles. Dating websites have now overtaken the allure of finding someone on the sweaty dancefloor.
"The day isn't so much about Patrick as an individual anymore, but the generations of Irish people who, despite years of colonial rule and oppression, struggled to keep their religion, language and culture alive."
Over time, something which once had significant meaning reflecting Irish religion is now just the norm within the sport. What we have left is a survival of traditional Celtic culture through the form of modern dance. My experience with St Patrick's Day has been modified by a uniquely Irish experience within Australian culture. It's an experience that I feel is both welcoming and can touch people from all cultures who keep their own traditions alive within Australia.
Patrick is a significant saint for the Irish because of his ability to spread Christianity to a largely pagan country. It turns out St Patrick couldn't have vanished any snakes because Ireland never had any to begin with. National Geographic says Ireland is one of only a few snake free places on earth. So, it's far more likely the 'snakes' were really the pagan ideas that were replaced with Christianity due to the preaching of Patrick across Ireland.
After Patrick's death in the fifth century he was widely forgotten. It wasn't until the 17th century that a feast day evolved in his name as the patron saint of Ireland. Given the timing, St Patrick would become the symbol of Irish Catholicism as the British seized more Irish land and banned traditional culture and customs. It was observed as a religious holiday for hundreds of years. The holiday falls in Lent, meaning it would begin with Mass followed by celebrations where the prohibition of meat was lifted for a day. People could drink and feast on traditional meals.
Today, it celebrates Irish culture across the world through parades, pub crawls and a sea of green.
Saint Patrick's Day, then, has also evolved into something more than a religious holiday. As a holy day of obligation in Ireland, people are called to reflect. Perhaps the day isn't so much about Patrick as an individual anymore, but the generations of Irish people who, despite years of colonial rule and oppression, struggled to keep their religion, language and culture alive. The clover now worn on St Patrick's day was believed to have been used to teach the trinity. It was then also worn by Irish freedom fighters and resistance to British rule as a symbol of ownership of Irish land.
St Patrick became a man who inspired courage and pride for the Irish to stand up for what they believe in. It's a day to celebrate community and struggle in the face of hardships. It's also a day to celebrate a people who try to keep traditional culture alive despite losing much of it over time. This is not just an Irish struggle, but one endured every day by Indigenous Australians and anyone else affected by colonial disruption.
Each year in my family St Patrick's Day has marked a survival of Irish culture in Australia. Sometimes this can be in subtle ways and sometimes it means singing at the top of our lungs, enjoying a drink and having a dance. Whether it's a Guinness or a Tooheys, everyone can celebrate with good company and good craic.
Francine Crimmins is studying a double degree of Journalism and Creative Intelligence & Innovation at the University of Technology Sydney. She is on twitter as @frankiecrimmins. Francine is the recipient of Eureka Street's Margaret Dooley Fellowship for Young Writers.
Pictured: Francine (in purple) dancing for St Patrick's Day.
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17 March 2017
A lovely story Francine.
I am of Irish ancestry and have been back to Ireland twice in the last twenty years, including a visit my ancestral county (Galway) , St Patrick's Day for me and my family is to remember the privations my ancestors experienced under English rule for many generations. My forebears were transported to New South Wales from Cork in the 1800's for "political intrigue". I am old enough to remember the sectrarism of the 50's and 60's here in Australia. Today is a day to give thanks for the freedoms we take so much for granted in this country and to remember and pray for my forebears.
17 March 2017
On the eighth day of March it was, some people say, That Saint Patrick at midnight he first saw the day, But others declare twas the ninth he was born, And twas all a mistake between midnight and morn. I don't remember the rest of the song, but the dispute was settled by adding the eighth and the ninth together and calling his birthday the seventeenth.
17 March 2017
Well written, Francine. My forebears were part of the diaspora, arriving at Kangaroo Point in Brisbane in the early 1860 with only what they could carry (my aunt has a small chest one of the young girls brought with her), fleeing discrimination and religious persecution. We must not forget that England, our ally, still holds a heavy hand over our distant cousins in the North, and seems to have difficulty in letting go of the last vestiges of its colonial past.
18 March 2017
Fantastic Francine. A good summary being Irish in Australia at the moment.
19 March 2017
St Patrick is a monument to the power of one: how an individual with faith can influence for the good a whole land and the world.
Thank you for the reminder, Francine.
20 March 2017
An interesting fact is that St Patrick was Welsh and returned to Ireland voluntarily after being first taken there as a slave. Ireland itself has always been a place of quite amazing contradictions. Despite the long, crushing years of the Ascendancy (British rule) and the terrible punishments handed out to anyone daring to rebel against this, the spirit of the native Irish was never broken, despite the terrible depopulation (genocide?) of East Ulster and the Plantation of the North; Transportation; the dreadful mismanagement of official relief (deliberate?) during the Great Famine and the treatment meted out to the heroes of 1916 etc. Modern Ireland is not the place many in the diaspora imagine. St Patrick's Day in Dublin passes with nary a whimper because Modern Ireland is free, and, unlike parts of the UK, basically thriving, despite going through a bad patch during and after the GFC. One difference from the past is that the Irish no longer unquestioningly revere the Catholic Church and its priests, brothers and nuns due to the awful paedophilia crisis there which rivals that here. The Irish language is thriving because it is compulsory in all schools to Leaving Certificate level. Many Irish-Australians, like Gavin O'Brien, should go back to see what it's really like. One final Irish paradox: the Chief of the O'Briens, a direct descendant of Brian Boru, is an Anglican and was educated at Eton. What a country!
20 March 2017
Can we hear about the 'real' Irish St Bridget? While I have nothing against Patrick I find it strange that Bridget (who unlike Patrick) was Irish is not held to be the symbol of an Irish tradition.
Roy Chen Yee
20 March 2017
"I am an Irishman second, I am a Catholic first, and I accept without qualification in all respects the teaching of the hierarchy and the church to which I belong." John A. Costello, Taoiseach, 1954-57. No dancing through myths for this un-Kennedy Irishman.