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Opinion: In many ways St Patrick's Day is an Irish American festival

‘Maybe this St Patrick’s Day we should concede ownership of our patron saint and accept that we have been sharing him with America for centuries’, writes Robbie Smyth.

Robbie Smyth

“IT’S BEEN ST Patrick’s Day for hours and I’m still not drunk yet,” complains Homer standing outside Moe’s bar.

The Simpsons episode set on Paddy’s day first aired on March 16, 1997.

Bart jibes Lisa for the green dress she’s wearing and he is the only person not dressed in green. 

The Simpsons dedicated four minutes to stinging observations of the Irish American St Patrick’s Day celebrations.

It ends with Homer holding forth on a bar stool with a barrel over his head proclaiming. “Look at me, I’m the Prime Minister of Ireland.”

Initially, I considered the Simpsons fascination with Ireland to be an isolated commentary, funny but clichéd. But a deeper analysis of the roots of celebrating St Patrick’s Day revealed a more complex relationship.

There are cultural transfers both ways across the Atlantic since March 17th, the supposed anniversary of Patrick’s birth or death (or both according to some sources) became a feast day in the early 17th century.

Often forgotten is that St Patrick is the patron saint of not just Catholic Ireland, but also of the Anglican Church of Ireland. 

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A host of other US sitcoms used St Patrick’s Day as a backdrop for episodes. How I Met Your Mother, the US Office, 30 Rock and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia have all had Patrick’s day episodes.

US chat shows like Jimmy Kimmel and Jimmy Fallon have also chimed in on Paddy’s Day.

I wrongly thought that the impetus for this was directed at Ireland until I discovered that St Patrick’s Day parades originated in America. 

In many ways, St. Patricks Day is an Irish American festival.

The rise of a festival

The first record of St Patrick’s celebrations in the US was in Boston on 17 March 1737, when the Charitable Irish Society was formed by a group of Presbyterians to: “cultivate a spirit of unity and harmony among all resident Irish … and to advocate socially and morally the interests of the Irish people and their cultural heritage”.

This year they will host their 282nd annual St. Patrick’s Day dinner!

Back then the day was popular with the Protestant community in Ireland too.

When the famed writer Jonathan Swift was  Dean of the Church of Ireland at St Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin- he twice wrote in his diaries (in 1713 and 1729) complaining that the Cathedral bells had been ‘deafening’ in that year’s St Patrick’s Day celebrations.

The first ever St. Patrick’s parade was recorded in New York in 1766. 

It was not until 1903 that a parade of the sort we expect today was held in Ireland, with Waterford holding the honour. In was only in that year that the day became a holiday in Britain and Ireland.

That’s not to say that there were no St Patrick’s Day celebrations in Ireland before 1903, but they took a different form. 

The Freemans Journal gives notice in March 1785 of the postponement of a St Patricks Day ‘fancy ball’ at Dublin Castle because many of the ‘nobility and gentry would be absent from town’.

The Belfast Newsletter on March 20th 1797 reported that a series of Irish Volunteers displays of cavalry and infantry were held that year in Dublin’s Phoenix Park.

The Derry Journal on March 20th 1848 report how that year’s St Patrick’s Day passed off peacefully in Dublin. The paper says that thousands of British soldiers had been brought to barracks in the city in case of disturbances.

An edition of the Wexford People from March 1863 contains a letter from the Mayor, John Greene, who records that not a single of case of ‘drunkenness, rioting, or any violation of the law’ was brought before him that year in the aftermath of the St Patrick’s Day celebrations.

In 1927 alcohol sales on St Patrick’s Day were banned in Ireland and this was only repealed in 1961.

It was not until 1931 that the first state-sponsored St Patrick’s Day march was held in Ireland. 

TV sitcoms on Paddy’s Day

In How I Met Your Mother Neil Patrick Harris has a green suit. His character Barney convinces Ted to come out and ‘party like there’s no tomorrow’.

Like most How I Met Your Mother episodes there is a moral lesson along the way, but not for Barney who wakes up beside a dumpster in a now crumpled green suit, declaring it ‘awesome’ as he stumbles away.

An episode of the US Office based on St Patrick’s day, peaks with office manager Michael declaring: “It is the closest that the Irish will ever get to Christmas.”

The St Patrick’s Day clichés are all there including a finale in a bar, with Irish music, green shots and a lot of drunk people.

In 2012, it was the turn of Tina Fey’s 30 Rock to tackle St Patrick’s Day.

Fey’s character Liz Lemon has a series of quips about Irish culture in the episode. My favourite is:

What are they going to do about it? Write a meandering play about how amazing the Irish are at not overcoming adversity.

Ultimately Lemon learns a St Patrick’ Day lesson. She has to deal with her own personal feelings. Her on-street reconciliation with boyfriend Criss leads one of the St Patrick’s Day revellers to declare:

Wait, is now the time on St Patrick’s Day when we talk about our feelings?

Finally, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia has a St Patrick’s Day episode, complete with a leprechaun and touching on everything from drunkenness to clerical child abuse. It crams more Irish stereotypes into a 25-minute episode than I thought possible.

When we look at US TV today commenting, on and making fun of, the Irish on St Patrick’s Day, it is worth remembering that this is just the latest instalment in a long and complex history of the Irish influence in America. 

This St Patrick’s Day we should concede ownership of our patron saint and accept that we have been sharing him with America for centuries.

Perhaps it is time to embrace your inner Irish American. 

Robbie Smyth is Deputy Head of Journalism & Media Communications at Griffith College Dublin.

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Robbie Smyth

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