Before the term March Madness was used to describe bouncing basketballs and broken brackets, or even before it was used to describe collegiate binge drinking on Florida beaches, it was used to describe St. Patrick’s Day, a welcome break from Lent.
Lent was SERIOUS! Fasting! Abstaining! Praying the family rosary before supper, which was more often a tuna salad or sardines and crackers than a hamburger or hot dog. No candy for kids during Lent. No liquor for adults during Lent. Sunday wasn’t really considered Lent; but in some of the more conservative homes, it was.
And yet, on March 17, St. Patrick’s Day, Lent was set aside in almost all households, Irish or not. This is true in America but not in Ireland, where the day is more of a holy day than a holiday. Just as Christmas seems to help survive the cruel winter, the St. Patrick’s holiday seemed to relieve the ashes and sackcloth mentality of Lent.
Our town was mostly French-Indian descendents of fur trappers and voyagers that came down from French Canada. Growing up, I can remember only two ‘Irishmen’, both of whom married into our tight knit locale. And yet, the celebration of St. Patrick’s Day was honored by all and even sanctioned by the priests of the church on the hill.
Most holidays celebrating a person are held on the day of the person’s birth. The day to honor St. Patrick is held on the day of his death. Even if his birthday was known for sure, the day of his death helped with getting through the Lenten period. Most holidays celebrating a person honor a native son, not a natural enemy. Patrick has about as much Irish in him as I do. He was an Englishman, brought to Ireland as a slave. He escaped and went back to England, where he became a priest. And then he returned to convert his captors.
It seemed like the stricter Lent was observed, the wilder St. Patrick’s Day was celebrated. But that was in the past. The strictness that once was Lent has all but disappeared, and the celebration that calls for green beer, and buttons that proclaim, ‘Kiss me. I’m Irish’, grows bigger and bawdier every year.
I have never really caught the ‘Irish Fever’; but don’t tell my father-in-law, John O’Boyle that. In his mind, my last name, Ostertag, is spelled O’Stertag. He is a true Irish-American.
For instance, while Ireland remained ‘neutral’ during WWII, not so with Irish America. John, for instance, ran away from home just after high school. He joined the Merchant Marine. His ship was torpedoed just off the coast of Argentina. John was rescued and he returned home just before Pearl Harbor. He enlisted in the Army, fought in Europe, was at the Liberation of Paris, and was wounded severely just as his outfit was about to march into the Battle of the Bulge. A true Irish American.
The Old Hand:
John, my 94 year old father-in-law, has marched in yet another Bemidji’s St. Patrick’s Day parade. As one of the original instigators of the parade, he has marched in almost every one since its inception.
While other cities argue over who has the most participants, the most spectators, the most celebrants that have at least some Irish in their background, Bemidji has the uncontested claim to having the shortest route of any of the parades.
It starts off in one of the two Irish pubs in the city. The marchers congregate during the late morning, and, then at a predetermined time, or maybe a little after, someone starts to sing DANNY BOY. They all join in singing, stand up, and parade across the street to the other pub.
Rain or shine, snow or sleet, a good time is had by all, young or old.
Erin go braugh!
Published Bulletin Board, St. Paul Dispatch 3/18/16
And then there is the song DANNY BOY, the anthem of Irish Americans and Canadians. The melody has Irish roots, but the lyrics were written by an Englishman!
Again with my Irish-American father-in-law:
The Old Hand:
John’s second wife was a beautiful, world-traveled lady, imported from Sweden. When she died the service was held in a Bemidji, in a Lutheran church with a large congregation of people of Swedish descent.
My father-in-law left most of the music up to the minister, but requested one song to be sung. True to his Irish heritage, he requested Danny Boy.
The resident singer was a somber older gentleman with a nice voice. He sang all the hymns without resorting to a hymnal – but when it came time for Danny Boy, both he and the organist brought out the sheet music. He handled it nicely, singing it straight forward without any attempt to imitate an Irish tenor. But, by his deep frown and his body language, the singer left no doubt he thought this song to be highly inappropriate to be sung in this church for the service of a nice Swedish Lutheran Lady.
And he did make one small change in the lyrics that say: and kneel and say an Ave there for me. Instead he sang: and kneel and say a prayer there for me. I can just imagine him putting his foot down on any singing about Aves in his church.
Published Bulletin Board, St Paul Dispatch 5/2/13
The dichotomy of the Irish in the New World reminds me of an old story:
Robert Driscoll was the first Jewish Lord Mayor of Dublin. When he came to the U.S. to visit, there was a ticker tape parade for him in New York City.
Among the spectators were two elderly Irish women. One turned to the other and said, ‘Can you imagine! He’s Lord Mayor of London and he’s Jewish!’
The second shook her head and said, ‘Lord Mayor of London, and he’s Jewish! Only in America. Only in America.’