Watching the St Patrick’s Day parade from Dublin on TV. Huge crowds, people of all ages from all parts of the world having heaps of innocent fun. Weird to think that just two days ago I was on that street, in a shop that sells what I will refer to only as apparel of an intimate nature. But that’s another story¹.
Some like to complain that the St Patrick’s Day parade has become Americanised. I have news for them; if anything it has become Irishised. There may be a lot of things about Ireland that have gone to America and come back strangely transformed. The Taoiseach spoke in the US yesterday wearing a green bow tie, something that would be unthinkable at home. The four-leaved clover you see everywhere these days is another case in point. That’s not an Irish emblem at all, simply a well-known symbol of luck because of its rarity. It’s become confused with the shamrock, presumably with the idea that it’s ‘even luckier’, but of course a four-leaved shamrock makes about as much sense symbolically as a five-legged muskrat.
The St Patrick’s Day parade however is no American version of an Irish tradition. It is an American tradition – and about as old a one as there is. They’ve been having them in New York for two hundred and fifty years, so it pre-dates even the US itself. It was begun by Irish soldiers in the British forces there, and became a tool for recruiting Irish colonists. So, not exactly the associations it has today… Shows you how mutable traditions really are.
So while celebrating St Patrick’s as a special day for Ireland has been traditional since mediaeval times, parading is a much later innovation, only becoming an official national thing as recently as 1931. Naturally Ireland’s own St Patrick’s Day parades were highly influenced by the much older US tradition, with expert American marching bands and cheerleaders frequently stars of the show.
Over recent years though it has been becoming more Irish. Today there are still the bands from overseas, but interspersed with them are arts groups from all over the country using floats, performance and giant puppets to tell chapters from a Roddy Doyle children’s story. Looks like a lot of fun at ground level. St Patrick’s Day parades may have begun as military marches, but it’s good to see them moving on.
- Which I am not telling.