When I was a boy growing up in an Irish immigrant household in the Bronx, March 17th was second only to December 25th in its potent mix of religion, magic, and celebration. We'd wait for the air-mail letter from our relatives in Galway to arrive and we'd carefully remove from it the little sprig of shamrock plucked from the soil of Holy Ireland and shaken free in the Bronx. We'd go to mass in the morning, with everyone singing the beautiful hymn, "Hail Glorious St. Patrick" [click on the title to hear the late Frank Patterson's version]. And, as a member of the Ancient Order of Hibernians All-Accordion Band, along with my father and brother Jimmy (now Jesse), we would march up 5th Avenue in the St. Patrick's Day Parade, something I did 11 years in a row. Post-parade, the underage drinking and wilding became part of one's Irish adolescence in New York. [photo above: AOH All-Accordion band, ca. 1955; Terence Winch, front row, far right; Jesse Winch, 3rd from right]
parade began in this country as an assertion of Irish identity and the growing
political power of Ireland's immigrants. In contrast, until
recent decades, March 17th in Ireland itself was much more a religious holiday.
[below: New York City's parade, 1871. A float featuring a bust of Daniel O'Connell passes through Union Square. The first recorded St. Patrick's Day parade was held in Boston, in 1737. New York was the second city to embrace the annual march, beginning in 1762.]
I wrote the poem below on the street, using a mailbox for a desk, on the way to a St. Paddy's Day gig with my band, Celtic Thunder, in the late 1990s.
P R A Y E R T O S T. P A T R I C K
St. Patrick, snake-hating Brit, forgive
us our sins, our wins, our losses,
forgive us our employees and bosses,
forgive us those stupid four-leaf clovers
that idiots confuse with the Holy Trinity-signifying
shamrock, especially around this time of year.
Forgive us green beer, Hostess cupcakes with green
icing, forgive us the moronic greening
of hair, food, water. Forgive us the total
lack of meaning that now attaches to your name.
It is all truly unseemly and insane.
Grant us a moratorium on any more news of
the triumphs of Michael Flatley or Frank McCourt.
God bless Paddy’s pig and Paddy Moloney’s wig,
Mickey and Andy Rooney, Rosemary and George Clooney.
Requiescat in pace, Versace et Liberace.
In nomine Dei, we’ve had enough of Leahy.
Dear saint of our isle, we’d like to send ya
an urgent plea to abolish Enya.
Let the bar owners pay
the poor musicians
a small fortune.
They’re earning it.
Banish misfortune for the Irish
over here and the Irish over there.
Banish “Danny Boy” and “The Unicorn”
while you’re at it.
Let there be an Irish-American fin de siècle
starring Mark McGwire and Margaret Heckler.
Grant another eighty-seven years to my Auntie Nora
and let history smile upon the Irish Diaspora.
Let the music be on the mark.
Lead the fiddle players from the dark
of orthodoxy. Oremus for my brother Seamus.
Let a thousand poems and songs
end the battles and undo the wrongs.
[This poem first appeared in Irish Music magazine (March 2000) and later in my book, Boy Drinkers.]
Equally irreverent is a well-known song, written by Henry
Bennett in the 1820s:
St. Patrick Was A Gentleman [click on title to listen to Christy Moore sing it]
Patrick was a gentleman, came from decent people
Built the church in Dublin town, and on it put a steeple
His father was a Gallagher, his mother was a Brady
His aunt was an O'Shaughnessy, his uncle was a Grady
The Wicklow hills are very high, and so's the Hill of Howth, sir
But there's a hill much higher still, much higher than them both, sir
On the top of this high hill St. Patrick preached his sermon
Which drove the frogs into the bogs and banished all the vermin
There's not a mile of Erin's isle where dirty vermin musters
But there he put his dear fore-foot and murdered them in clusters
The frogs went hop and the toads went pop slapdash into the water
And the snakes committed suicide to save themselves from slaughter
Nine hundred thousand reptiles blue he charmed with sweet discourses
And dined on them in Killaloe on soups and second courses
Where blind worms crawling in the grass disgusted all the nation
Right down to hell with a holy spell he changed their situation
No wonder that them Irish lads should be so gay and frisky
Sure St. Pat he taught them that as well as making whiskey
No wonder that the saint himself should understand distilling
For his mother kept a shebeen shop in the town of Enniskillen
Was I but so fortunate as to be back in Munster
I'd be bound that from that ground I never more would once stir
There St. Patrick planted turf and cabbages and praties
Pigs galore, mo gra/, mo sto/r, altar boys and ladies.
But St. Patrick (385─461 AD), all irreverence aside, really deserves to live on in our collective memory. In his brilliant 1995 best-seller, How the Irish Saved Civilization, Thomas Cahill writes with eloquent insight and feeling about Patrick, really giving the man a human shape. Patrick "...worries constantly for his people, not just for their spiritual but for their physical welfare. The horror of slavery was never lost on him [Patrick had been a slave himself for six years]: 'But it is the women kept in slavery who suffer the most—and who keep their spirits up despite the menacing and terrorizing they must endure. The Lord gives grace to his many handmaids; and though they are forbidden to do so, they follow him with backbone.'" A primal feminist! Cahill goes on: "...the greatness of Patrick is beyond dispute: the first human being in the history of the world to speak out unequivocally against slavery. Nor will any voice as strong as his be heard again till the seventeenth century." He's earned his parade.
Statue of St. Patrick at Leaba Padriag (St. Patrick's Bed) in Connemara (Galway).