I’ve celebrated St. Patrick’s Day in lots of places over the years and they all seem to have one thing in common; an excuse for a big booze up.
What is it about St. Patrick’s Day (or St. Paddy’s, as we call it in Ireland – I’m not sure why the Americans insist on calling it St. Patty’s Day – Patty’s a girl’s name, for one thing) that makes everyone think they can be Irish for one day by getting plastered drunk? Being an obnoxious drunk on any other day of the year just makes you an obnoxious drunk, but on 17 March, if you drink your body weight in alcoholic substances, that makes you “Irish”.
Years ago, I covered St. Patrick’s Day in Hong Kong for the now defunct Eastern Express newspaper. With me was a Hong Kong Chinese photographer called Roy who had never experienced St. Patrick’s Day before. After visiting the three Irish pubs in the city and interviewing and photographing the customers and owners, Roy and I made our way through the increasingly rowdy crowd to a car and driver waiting outside to take us back to the office in time for the 11pm newspaper deadline.
As we settled into the back seat of the car, Roy turned to me and asked: “Explain to me what that was all about. Why am I taking pictures of drunk people?”
“Well, Roy,” I said, “17 March marks the anniversary of the death of St. Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland. He brought Christianity to Ireland in the fifth century and apparently drove out the snakes.”
“OK,” said Roy, “so explain to me why I’m taking pictures of drunk people?”
“You see, people tend to celebrate it by drinking.”
“I guess because there’s this perception that Irish people like to drink and so they show solidarity with Irish people by drinking. And since St. Patrick’s Day falls in the middle of Lent, when lots of Irish people give up drinking, it’s traditionally a day off from fasting and being good,” I replied.
“And was this holy man, Patrick, a big drinker?” asked Roy.
“I don’t know if he was a drinker. It’s not really recorded.”
“So, let me make sure I’ve got this right. This saint brought Christianity to Ireland and so everyone gets drunk on this day just because he was Irish.”
“Actually, he was Scottish. Or possibly Welsh. Or maybe English. And his parents may have been Roman so, technically, he might have been Italian. Anyway, he was kidnapped by Irish slavers and brought to Ireland, but he escaped after a few years, went to France, then became a bishop in Rome and then moved back to Ireland.”
“Really? OK, so, let’s start again. This Scottish, Welsh, English or Italian saint brought Christianity to Ireland after going to France and Rome and now 1,500 years later, people are drinking green beer to celebrate this? Is this because the Irish always drink to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day?”, the curious and, frankly, quite bemused photographer asked.
“Well, um, no, not really. You see, until the 1970s, all pubs had to be closed on Holy Days in Ireland, so on St. Patrick’s Day, everyone in Ireland would pin a sprig of fresh shamrock to their jackets, go to Mass and then go home. And anyway, most Irish people wouldn’t be caught dead drinking green beer. Why the hell would you ruin a perfectly good beer by making it look like someone’s dipped a gangrenous limb in it?”
“One more thing – why were people pinching me tonight?”
“It’s because you’re cute, Roy… Actually, it’s because you’re not wearing anything green.”
“What’s that about?”
“That’s something else that doesn’t happen in Ireland. That’s another American invention, like the green beer silliness. It’s got something to do with leprechauns not being able to see you if you wear green.”
“They’re like fairies. They have a pot of gold under the rainbow and if you catch one, you get to keep his pot of gold.”
By now, Roy was beginning to look at me like I had produced a pot of snakes from under a rainbow.
“And what do these leprechauns have to do with St. Patrick?” he asked slowly.
“Nothing. They’re not real.”
“So, I’m covered in bruises because of an imaginary creature that can see me because I’m not wearing green on a day that celebrates an Irish saint who isn’t Irish.”
“Yup, that just about sums it up. Now, get out of the car, develop your film and meet me at the office bar. I’ll buy you a Guinness, and I promise it won’t be green.”