WELL, that was a record anyway. The first brightly sunny and dry St Patrick’s Day in history surely?!
When we were young, we were told firmly at school that on Good Friday it always rained between noon and 3 pm, which is when the Son of Man died on the cross. And we believed it.
But a far more reliable forecast was for March 17, when inevitably, as parades began to form up in every town and village, the skies would darken and the rain would start to fall. This year, which is strange enough without anything else adding to it, we get a beautiful clear day to celebrate our patron saint.
Well, it has always been the day to start planting out the vegetable garden, putting in the seeds and preparing the potato beds. In England they wait for that same Good Friday (maybe they don’t have the same problem with rain, it’s a lot drier there) but here, in the warmer Cork climate, Patrick’s Day is the time to think about the kitchen garden crops.
In schooldays, you didn’t think too much about where Patrick came from, how he chanced upon Ireland, and why he chose to stay here. You just absorbed the unchangeable facts that he cast out all the snakes and made us the holiest country in the world.
If, in later years, you happened to learn that we never had snakes here in the first place, you might have shrugged and wondered briefly, but it didn’t shake the overall belief. Snakes out, Patrick in.
It might be a little less acceptable to realise that Patrick was dragged here unwillingly in the first place, the victim of one of Ireland’s many profitable slave-gathering raids on neighbouring Wales. Snatching captives to work our land, and herd cattle and sheep, was the only way to become successful back then.
It is nevertheless surprising that, when the lad did manage to escape, he actually came back later on, determined to change the pagan ways of this country, and lead it into a Christian future. Which is why we celebrate his day and praise him mightily.
Did you know that the very first St Patrick’s Day parade took place not here in Ireland but in America? Well, in what was then Spanish Florida actually, in 1601, presided over by an Irish vicar, one Richard Arthur.
More than a century later, Irish soldiers serving in the English military marched through New York city in 1772 to honour their patron saint.
After that, there was no stopping the Irish expat communities. All over the world they have celebrated ever since, in a welter of green and gold and Irishness.
In fact, they go in for it rather more than we do.
Yes, of course we have our parades, we wear our shamrock, but it’s nothing like Australia or Boston on March 17.
Katie O’Brien remembers being in a small town in the hills above Los Angeles one year at the time of the festival.
“We had hardly noticed that it was the 17th, but when we went out to look for some breakfast, we found the whole little place bedecked in green flags, bunting, and signs saying ‘Kiss Me, I’m Irish!’
“The café we went into had green tablecloths and even the staff were done up. The woman at the cash register had dyed her hair green, and the lad serving the tables had turned his runners a vivid shade of emerald.
“We mentioned that we were actually Irish, and the owner said, ‘Of course you are! Aren’t we all?’ We explained that no, we meant we had just come from Ireland, feel our jackets, they’re still wet with the Irish rain if you don’t believe us. Well, they erupted! They couldn’t do enough for us! We got free breakfasts, second helpings, even apple pie and cream!
“I think the thing was that you didn’t need to celebrate the day all that strongly, because you were Irish anyway, you were living in Ireland, so why make a song and dance about it,” observes Margaret.
“I can see how those who emigrated to America or Australia would feel a very strong need to mark the occasion and show off their Irishness to the world.
“I realise that, in recent years, it has grown into a seriously big commercial enterprise here, with all sorts of spin-offs like decorations and silly hats, but it wasn’t anything like that in our day.
You wore shamrock on your coat going to Mass, you went to the parade of course, if there was one on in your town, but that was about it. Easter was the big one to look forward to.”
Most towns of any size in County Cork have had their own parades since the 1950s at least. Eileen Moloney has great childhood memories of St Patrick’s Day in Macroom.
“We lived right on the street, so we had gala views from our upstairs windows of everything that was going on. We were the envy of all our school pals. I tell you, the house was like a Fair Day on March 17. My mother would have the kettle on the go constantly as people dropped in and out.
“If it were a wet day — as it often was — they’d come in for a warm up and a dry off, and a cup of tea and a slice of cake. She’d have been baking all night beforehand. And of course all the relatives would have come up to Macroom for the day, and they would drop in too. It was one of the best days in the year.”
Everybody, every business and company for miles around the town would have put a float into the parade, remembers Eileen, “and they would compete with each other to create the best one, with topical themes or funny ones, with leprechauns, and funny men, and specially built sets”.
She added: “The dancing schools would walk in the parade, and the gymnasts, and the local sports teams. And the bands! There was always a bit of frantic organising to be done on the music, because the band from, say, north Cork, would want to take part, but they’d have to get through parades in two other locations first before hurrying down to us, so you were never sure they’d make it!
“And when the parade was finally over, out you’d go to see them tidying up and taking down the floats, and you’d get together with your friends and discuss the day and what they thought of each part of the parade.
“That night the whole family might go out to dinner together. Or we might make a night of it at home, with corned beef and cabbage, and a bit of a sing song. Ah it was a great day in the calendar, a real bright spot in the middle of Lent!”
Yes, that welcome break in the severity of Lent was what Jane remembers too.
“I vividly recall deciding in the quiet of the garden that it was OK to eat that longed-for chocolate bar on Patrick’s Day because it wasn’t Lent really, it was a proper holiday from school and in honour of our patron saint, so how could it belong to Lent?”
It was a relief in the middle of Lent, agrees Rose.
“I mean, you were off sweets, your dad was off cigarettes or a pint, there was fasting, it was all a bit of a misery, and then you had this one break, a whole day off from school, maybe something special for dinner, and of course you had to wear your shamrock.
“I don’t remember wearing anything green especially, though, and I wouldn’t have if I’d been offered it. I hated my green school uniform so much that I wouldn’t wear that colour on my day off! It took me years after I left school to even look at green clothes, and I still abhor that particular gymslip shade!”
Mary remembers singing Hail Glorious St Patrick, Dear Saint Of Our Isle, at school before the big day itself.
“We really let rip on it, because it was a bit different to the usual hymns and all that Gregorian chant that we used to have to do for those open-air Masses. They weren’t on St Patrick’s Day though, were they?
“I remember huge multiple school events in Fitzgerald’s Park, where Mass was celebrated and we would all sing the different parts of the service — the Agnus Dei, the Credo, all of those. I wonder what time of year those were? Does anybody else know?”
“What I remember most about St Patrick’s Day as a young man was not being able to meet your friends in the pub for a pint or two,” says Barry.
Ah yes, back then (and up to not so long ago too), licensed premises were most definitely barred and shuttered on March 17.
“We used to ask each other, how the heck we were supposed to drown the shamrock when you couldn’t even get inside the door?”
Barry and his friends found their own solution. “It was a day off from work, so we would just go out and do our level best to find a pub that was well beyond the city limits and might be persuaded to hand out the pints through a back window.”
The famous old Fox and Hounds, up beyond Ballyvolane, was a favourite for many years, he says, “but then the gardaí got to know about that one, and would make sure to keep an eye on it, so we had to go further afield. We usually found some shebeen where they were willing to chance it.”
It wasn’t that they were confirmed alcoholics, he explains.
“You couldn’t afford to be a steady drinker back then, with the small wages you were getting. But it was the fact you couldn’t have the pint of Beamish or Murphy that got to you.
"If you hadn’t thought about a drink all week, waking up on the morning of March 17 and knowing there wasn’t a chance of it, was enough to put a fierce thirst on you!”
Beamish or Murphys? Any American would assume naturally enough that we all drank nothing but Guinness in Ireland, but a Corkonian would put him right quick enough.
“That stuff they brew up in Dublin might be alright for tourists,” declares Barry, “but it’s only trotting after the Beamish or the Murphy.” So which would he prefer for the noble purpose of drowning the shamrock? “Well, back in the day you could tell Beamish just by the look of it in the pint glass. It had a much more yellow tinge to the head, and it was really creamy to drink. That was my favourite, until they started playing round with the recipe, and now you can’t really tell it from Murphy.”