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A Word (OK, Several Hundred Words) About St. Patrick's Day

Updated: Mar 18

Although the extent and nature of my Irish heritage is somewhat hazy (yeah, definite genealogy project for my post-retirement years), growing up I certainly identified as Irish. I was exposed to lots of Irish arts, culture and history, and had a few visits to the Auld Sod as well. And in my late teens, I became very interested in, and started playing, Irish music.

Which brings me to St. Patrick's Day.

As a little kid, I loved the idea that there was a special day devoted to being Irish. As an older kid and younger adult, I became increasingly disenchanted with it. A big part of what drove this change was my musical immersion, drawing inspiration from the likes of Planxty, The Chieftains, The Bothy Band, Clannad, Andy Irvine & Paul Brady, and numerous other performers who came along in the 1960s/70s Irish music revival, while also giving attention to the more traditional musicians and singers. I disdained anything that, as far as I was concerned, did not meet the standard or criteria set by this select group.

I'll admit it. I became a snob.

Of course, when March 17 would hove into view, I knew what to expect: an outpouring of much the same songs that have always summed up Irish music in American popular culture -- jaunty, upbeat ditties (much of them in 2/4 time) or slow, mawkishly sentimental odes. So I'd grit my teeth and grumble to friends and acquaintances, or no one in particular, what a travesty that such a massive body of Irish music was overlooked and underappreciated.

Over time, I came to realize that what really bothered me about the St. Patrick's Day atmosphere was that it seemed to celebrate and codify the caricatures of Irishness: drunkenness, aggressiveness, oafishness, ignorance, and an overabundance of emotionality. There was little in the way of nuance or sophistication. Why so much "Danny Boy" and "Irish Rover," but so little "I'm a Youth That's Inclined to Ramble" and "In Praise of the City of Mullingar"? Why so much vaudeville Irish and so little literary Irish? Why so much "Darby O'Gill" and so little "The Quiet Girl"? You get the idea. And I know I'm not the only one to feel this way.

Apropos of "Danny Boy," or "The Song That Must Not Be Named" as some call it: For years, friends of mine have teased me about my apparent antipathy for it, and have dared me to perform it in public, as if this would be some climactic tableau. I have politely (sometimes not so politely) declined and will continue to do so. But it's not because I believe that, were I to start singing the first line, my brain would try to wrench free from its moorings and exit via my mouth. I just prefer to focus on songs that I'm truly psyched to learn, arrange and perform. I'm simply not interested enough in "Danny Boy" to want to make it part of my repertoire -- even ironically. But I honestly don't begrudge anyone who does like listening to or singing "Danny Boy."

And, you know, that's where I've come to on St. Patrick's Day. I concluded a long time ago that holding grudges is just too damn tiring and not a particularly constructive thing to do. There's just too much else we should be righteously aggrieved about, and the observance of St. Patrick's Day ain't one of them. I do know for a fact that not everybody sees March 17 as license to get blue-blind paralytic, adopt an Oirish accent and crash into the furniture while executing their rendition of the "Riverdance" finale; there are a number of people who raise a glass and evoke the many hallmarks of Irish civilization.

So, since this blog thing nominally has to do with writing, I'd say it would be great for folks -- as a real St. Patrick's Day blessing -- to discover or get reacquainted with your classic Irish authors, e.g., Yeats, Joyce, O'Casey, Beckett, Gregory, (Edna) O'Brien. But also make time and head space for Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, Paul Murray, Caitríona Palmer, Kevin Barry, Richard Kearney, and Diarmaid Ferriter. Not even close to a comprehensive list, of course. Lord knows, I have a big one of my own that keeps getting ever larger.

(Also, a not-so-shameful confession: I find this "Simpsons" meme actually quite funny.)

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