By Suzanne Sparrow Watson
Are you sober yet? If you’re like millions of Americans you celebrated St. Patrick’s Day last Friday by consuming some spirits in honor of the occasion. Some of us are genuinely of Irish extraction but on St. Patrick’s Day everyone is Irish. Simply donning a green hat or sporting shamrock underwear gives the wearer some implicit permission to get toilet-hugging drunk. There actually are a lot of Americans with Irish bloodlines – 37 million to be exact. That’s 12% of the population, ranking just behind Germany in most frequently reported ancestry. Heck, we have eight times the number of Irish than Ireland itself! Which is probably as good an explanation as any as to why the holiday is so much more popular here than in Ireland. Twenty years ago my husband’s cousin from Scotland came to San Francisco on business and we met him for dinner near our workplaces. Unfortunately, the only night he had available was St. Patrick’s Day and to further the problem, we worked right around the corner from Harrington’s Bar and Grill. We met at a nearby restaurant that required our cousin to walk from his hotel right by Harrington’s front door. Or as close to the front door as he could get. There are a lot of Irish in San Francisco and they seemingly all gather at Harrington’s each year to celebrate the patron saint. When he finally navigated his way to the restaurant he was wild-eyed and I think just the tiniest bit shell-shocked. He stammered, “What is with you Americans and St. Patrick’s Day?” Well, it turns out, we practically invented the holiday.
Since around the ninth or 10th century, people in Ireland have been observing the Roman Catholic feast of St. Patrick on March 17. But the first parade held in honor of St. Patrick’s Day took place in the United States. On March 17, 1762, Irish soldiers serving in the English military marched through New York City. The parade, along with their native music, helped the soldiers reconnect with their Irish roots and fellow countrymen. Over the next three decades numerous groups formed to celebrate Irish heritage, each sponsoring a parade on St. Patrick’s Day. By the mid-1800s the groups combined forces into what is now known as the New York St. Patrick’s Day Parade, the largest in the country and the oldest civilian-sponsored parade in the world.
Of course, all that marching is exhausting so finding a good pub to quench one’s thirst became part of the day’s tradition. Some people take pride in finding good Irish pubs wherever they go, regardless of the time of year. In fact, although I won’t mention names, someone I’m related to that also writes for this blog fashions himself a connoisseur of Irish drinking establishments. He is the only person I know who could trek all the way to Machu Picchu and find an authentic Irish pub in which to have a Guinness. But he is far from alone. What is this obsession so many have with the Irish? I’ve read more than one article claiming the Irish are the most beloved ethnic group in the world. Of course, part of that affection is tied to the “happy drunk” reputation, but in fact it goes further than that. The Irish are deemed to be some of the most sentimental souls on Earth. One need only read the famous Irish poets to understand the truth of that. The Irish are also known world-wide for their sense of humor and dry wit. Oscar Wilde, the noted Irish writer, filled our world with his bon mots. One of my favorites is: “It is absurd to divide people into good and bad. People are either charming or tedious”. George Carlin was perhaps one of the funniest comedians ever with his wry observations of everyday life and Melissa McCarthy is a talented entertainer (come on, that bathroom scene in Bridesmaids is a classic!). The Irish also have the ability to write lyrically and capture an audience, despite sometimes playing fast and loose with the facts. One of my favorite sayings, told to me by an Irish friend who was wound-up in the middle of a fantastical yarn, is “never let the truth get in the way of a good story”. My brother and I have at times adopted that as our motto.
There’s also the famous saying “Luck of the Irish”, although I have discovered that the phrase started as a derisive jab at the Irish immigrants who came to America in the late 1800’s. It originated in the gold and silver mines to describe the Irish who found their “pot of gold” and became rich and successful. The Irish were never given full credit for their accomplishments. Instead it was widely believed that the “Irish fools” had gained fortune only by sheer luck, as opposed to brains and hard work. Our only full-blooded Irish ancestor, Julia Stack Billiou, came to America during this period but as you might recall from my last post, she was not lucky in any sense of the word, having been shot by her Chinese cook. Nevertheless, her immigration gives our family claim to Irish heritage and provides cover for our love of good writing, a stout beer, and a strong Irish Coffee. I call that lucky indeed!