When Irish Eyes Are Smiling

Mmmm, a nice pintFeatures: March 2010 – I don’t have a lot of good memories of celebrating St. Patrick’s Day. I don’t have a lot of bad ones either, I just don’t have too many memories of it at all as the handful of times I’ve actually made an effort to go out and celebrate it it’s almost always involved entirely too much drinking.

Even if I weren’t wearing green like a lot of other celebrants were I usually had a green color about me by the end of the day.

How a holiday celebrating the remembrance a pious former slave who became a missionary and returned to the land he was once held captive has metamorphosized into an all-day bacchanal is a mystery to me.

I grew up among the Irish–and that’s not just a figure of speech–and getting drunk was never a big part of their lives.

Tobin, Cullen, Murphy, Fitzgerald, Boyd, McKenna, Kelly, Connolly, Donnelly O’Malley, O’Shaughnessy, O’Toole–those were just some of the Irish families on my block when I was growing up.

It was into these families’ homes I went to for weddings, funerals, graduations, confirmations, anniversaries or sometimes just to borrow some flour for my mother if she were baking and had run out.

All of these folks had razor-sharp wits, were great storytellers and were always quick with a joke and a hearty hello on the street. They were always happy to offer you help if you needed and unafraid to ask for help when they did.

I couldn’t have possibly had better neighbors growing up and I don’t remember any of them being heavy drinkers.

If drinking to excess were truly an inherently “Irish” trait than one might think that Iowa City–not Ireland–was the true ancestral homeland of the Irish people.

Don’t get me wrong–I’m not by any stretch of the imagination an opponent of drunken debauchery–but let’s just call how we celebrate the holiday what it is: tailgating in anticipation of spring’s big debut.

St. Patrick’s Day–when there’s a parade anyway–is normally the first time people will gather outside in large numbers in dubious weather without there needing to be a sport occurring somewhere in the vicinity to justify it. And nobody will give you a funny look for drinking in public at 10 in the morning at a St. Patrick’s Day parade. Try doing this at a Christmas day parade sometime and you’ll end up in the drunk tank being a stocking stuffer for somebody bigger than you are.

How, then, is how we celebrate St. Patrick’s Day really any different from tailgating? It’s not.

Just as legend holds that St. Patrick is believed to have driven the snakes out of Ireland, St. Patrick’s Day is when we all gather–Irish or not–and lift green beers to drive winter out of our lives.

That we’re doing it under the guise of a holiday that celebrates the life of a saint–and Irish culture in general–is just fine by me. The Irish are a wonderful people who more than deserve a day of recognition for all they’ve brought to this country, but getting wasted-drunk in the process doesn’t make one any more “Irish” than eating a few cans of SpaghettiOs and watching a Sopranos marathon makes you Italian.

Folks getting plastered on St. Patrick’s Day aren’t having an authentically “Irish” experience by being drunk. When folks get plastered on St. Patrick’s Day, they’re really just hoping that the booze will remove enough of their inhibitions so that they’ll be able to to sing and dance and love and tell stories and jokes without being at all self-conscious about it–to live, if only for a few hours–how many Irish folks are able to live all year long.

Even though it’s a lot like New Year’s Eve in that it draws the casual drunkards out of the woodwork, I am still a fan of the holiday.

Mostly because it’s a more honest excuse to drink than New Year’s because there’s no pretense of it being one more “last hurrah” before entering a Lenten-like period of introspection and restraint and denial and self-improvement under the guise of New Year’s Resolutions. Well-intended but usually hollow promises made to yourself that are lucky to last more than a few weeks. If they’re even remembered by the time you crawl out of bed the next morning.

For most folks, the “twinkle in their eye” they have while singing Oh Danny Boy at the Deadwood on St. Patrick’s Day is just some Jameson that splashed into it while they were downing their sixth Car Bomb of the evening, not the genuine twinkle a lot of Irish folks authentically have, but, on St. Patrick’s Day, for those few fleeting hours, well, it’s close enough.

Besides, any holiday that’s celebrated by lifting a beer, making toasts and singing and dancing with strangers while driving winter out of our lives is a holiday I can get behind.

I remember how spectacularly and unseasonably warm it was in Iowa City last year on St. Patrick’s Day. Dubuque Street could have given Bourbon Street a run for its money and while sitting on the bench in front of Pizza on Dubuque after body-surfing up the stairs from the Dublin Underground, I thought to myself, what an evenmore wonderful place Iowa City would be if the weather were always this nice in mid-March.

I enjoyed that thought for a moment before I realized that if that were the case, we’d be so over-populated that we might as well be Tampa. There wouldn’t have been a seat on the bench in front of the pizza place (if there were even a bench there at all) and that everything that made that moment so special–the weather, the revelers, the Irish girls I had been drinking and dancing with downstairs–none of them would have been quite as enjoyable to me as they were there, at that moment, because it really wouldn’t be Iowa City any more if that were the case.

An unseasonably warm day that perfectly coincided with a holiday where drinking in public is all but a required observation (more than it usually is in Iowa City, anyway) couldn’t have just been a coincidence.

I think it was our reward for toughing it out through another long winter.

Or maybe God just likes St. Paddy’s Day too.

I wouldn’t blame him.