“Being Irish, he had an abiding sense of tragedy,
which sustained him through temporary periods of joy.”
William Butler Yeats.
Yeats has it backwards—at least on St. Patrick’s Day. When that venerated holiday arrives, everybody’s Irish and there’s a whole lot of joy without much tragedy (that’s reserved for the morning after). There’s also not a whole lot of religion. This comes as something of a surprise given that you can’t get to St. Patrick’s Day without going through “Saint.” In fact, Patrick seems to have disappeared from the celebration altogether. That might have something to do with a fickle public. You see, Patrick isn’t exactly a saint. He was “sainted” by popular acclamation rather than canonization. That’s not to say he didn’t deserve the honor. Patrick was doing quite well as an upper class Briton when he was kidnapped by pirates and enslaved in Ireland. After six years he escaped but with a little divine nudging was ordained and returned as a missionary. Reptiles must have made his initial stay in the old country particularly unpleasant because upon arrival, he chased them all into the sea. The complexities of orthodox Christianity presented their own challenges. With a paucity of visual aids, Patrick relied on the three-leafed shamrock to illustrate the trinity. He’s been pictured holding one ever since. But for poor St. Patrick, times and tastes change.
That change was obvious for those of us hailing from the County Bronx. To our set, St. Patrick’s Day was considered as good a time as any to commemorate the Easter Rebellion of 1916. That uprising not only led to Irish independence but to the composition of some terrific rebel songs. Numerous martial airs with lyrics like, “And the Tans they flew, like lightening to, the rattle of our Thompson guns,” would fuel (along with the green beer) nationalistic fervor among the “everybody’s Irish” crowd in neighborhood taverns. Thanks to the musical stylings of The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem, folks would be on their feet one moment cheering the republic and crying in their beer the next when the boys sang a mournful ballad. But, as noted, times and tastes change. The martial airs may have proven a bit too martial for the sensitivities of modern-day non-combatants and really, those ballads could be a real buzz kill on a fun night out. Soon, The Clancy Brothers found themselves being pushed aside in favor of the Irish Rovers who delivered treacle about, green alligators, long-necked geese, humpty-backed camels, chimpanzees and—saints preserve me—unicorns.
How an austere saint holding a three-leaf clover transformed into a leprechaun holding a lucky four-leafed one is as shroud in mystery as Patrick’s snake trick of long ago. Equally baffling is the transmogrification of fire-breathing rebel songs into chirpy tunes about unicorns. One possible explanation is that we’ll spend $4.7 billion on March 17th. That’s because St. Patrick’s Day has become, like most of our holidays, a themed event. As such, it has to be “one size fits all.” Retailers cue us how to decorate—a pumpkin for Halloween, a flag for the Fourth, a hot dog for Labor Day—and then we party as we might do on any other day. But is something lost when our holidays lose their meaning? After all, they each meant something at one time—that’s why they’re holidays. It’s a question worth pondering over a Guinness Stout and a corned beef sandwich. And if an answer seems elusive, just ask that leprechaun riding by on a unicorn. —Ebert