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Feature Stories

As American as St. Patrick’s Day

I can think of better ways to spend next Saturday than vomiting on the Long Island Rail Road. But you’d be surprised at how many people will be doing precisely that as they use New York City’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade as an excuse to get sotted. (St. Patrick’s Day is, of course, next Sunday.)

For so many Americans, the feast of the patron saint of Ireland has become an alcohol-drenched outing in stupid shirts, green hair and “Kiss Me I’m Irish” buttons. And since our youth, we’ve been cautioned that it’s a grave insult to wear orange on this day of kelly.

But that’s nonsense. It’s all nonsense—from the binge drinking to stuffing your gut full of corned beef, cabbage and dry bread that often tastes more like baking soda than anything from a bakery.

As with so much that we Americans do, we do St. Patrick’s Day to an extreme. Much the way we have transformed a national day of thanksgiving into an orgy of drumsticks and cranberry sauce and the day before All Saint’s Day into a sugar-powered costume party.

Fortunately, around here at least, St. Patrick’s Day isn’t all about excess. In fact, I love the parades and wholesome celebrations held on the Main Streets of our communities and in the school and church all-purpose rooms. Construction-paper shamrocks. Proud little marchers in their scout uniforms and step-dancing outfits waving to their parents and neighbors at the curbside. The rumble of the fire trucks and the piercing melancholy music of the bagpipers in the police department Emerald Society. Last week’s parades in Bethpage and Mineola, as well as Glen Cove’s March 17 march, are slices of the Norman Rockwell/It’s A Wonderful Life hometown spirit that makes us misty-eyed and is, when all is said and done, the sirens’ song of suburbia.

The theme is Irish, but the experience is sweetly all-American.

Traditionally, St. Patrick’s Day in Ireland hasn’t been even as exciting as a Grand Marshal riding in the backseat of a slow-moving convertible. Recent years have seen parades pop up. And while this year Dublin is holding a cultural festival and a parade during St. Paddy’s week, the events are more marketing initiatives than grassroots celebrations.

Many years ago, I went to school in Dublin. It was the 1970s, when we warmed ourselves by fireplaces in the living room, with the better-off people burning coal; the others, peat cut from ancient bogs. St. Patrick’s Day was (and is) a national holiday. But rather than a raucous mid-week break, it felt like a slow—even boring—Sunday. Everyone went to mass and, where I lived, we had a modest meal of lamb chops and blood pudding. No corned beef. And the cabbage was a greener, more tender vegetable than those leafy bowling balls we buy in the supermarket. Someone said there were fireworks over the River Liffey, but we stayed in and played cards.

Of course, much has changed in Ireland since then. The country became the “Celtic Tiger”—a tiny but powerful economic force that put people who previously were unemployed and emigrating on the fast track to wealth. During this time, my old school building was converted into a hotel for those who couldn’t get into the brand-new Four Seasons hotel next door. When that bubble burst under the pressure of an insane amount of debt, Ireland entered its current phase of tough—though not hopeless—times.

Despite the economic and emotional gyrations the country has seen, St. Patrick’s Day in Ireland still is fundamentally about church and family. Many Americans could learn from that. And stay off the train.