MICHAEL WOLSEY: Here come the leprechauns, let the green beer flow!
AS THE festival of green beer and drunken leprechauns staggers towards us it is startling to reflect that, in the not-so-distant past, Ireland’s pubs were closed on St Patrick’s Day.
The ban, imposed in 1903 to combat public disorder, was not lifted until 1972. A great deal of ingenuity was devoted to defying it.
One way was to attend the dog show which used to be held every St Patrick’s Day at the RDS in Dublin, where a bar was legally open. Some very unusual ‘canine experts’ could be found there, including the writer Brendan Behan who quipped that they served a good pint but it was a funny place to bring a dog.
Even after the ban was lifted, St Patrick’s Day in Ireland remained a pretty staid affair. Dublin’s parade was the country’s biggest but a poor thing, built around a handful of bands, with a couple of tunes, and a string of commercial vehicles masquerading as floats.
In 2001, Maeve Binchy told readers of The New York Times that “Dublin was the dullest place on earth to spend St. Patrick’s Day.” The writer recalled how she and her family would watch with amazement as television showed them Irish people in other parts of the world whopping it up on March 17.
All this began to change when the Government, spotting the potential tourism benefits, got professionals to organise the big parade and a marketing company to sell the big day.
The Dublin parade is now one of the best in the world, up there with Mardi Gras in New Orleans and Carnival in Rio de Janeiro. It is the centre-piece of a three-day festival.
In an incredible marketing coup, we have convinced half the world to go green along with us. In Boston they put green paint on the lines down the middle of roads, Chicago dyes an entire lake. Prince Albert stages a hooley at his palace in Monaco, Sydney Opera House is bathed in green light, there are parades in Shanghai, fireworks in Moscow and parties in Seoul.
Every year, as regular as the festival itself, there are complaints about excessive drinking and public disorder: the very thing that brought about the pub ban in 1903. Sometimes I am tempted to call for its return, but when I think back to the miserable ‘celebrations’ of my youth, I can only say: Carry on with the party, let the green beer flow!
Not that it matters what I or anyone else may say. The modern festival floats on a commercial tide that is unstoppable. The demands of tourism, and, indeed, the home-based demand for entertainment, have turned St Patrick’s Day into an affair which lifts not just Dublin but every Irish city and larger town.
If you want to see what it used to be like, drop into any small town on March 17.
After Mass there will be a little parade with schoolchildren, a GAA club, a few tractors and the local band. It will start late and follow an unscheduled route. Anyone not in the procession will be watching it.
There will be no drinking, no misbehaviour. And no money to be made.
I’m not knocking these small town delights. I am glad they survive. But I am also very glad that Ireland is no longer the dullest place on earth to spend St Patrick’s Day.