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March 17, 2004

Saint Patrick’s Day





This is another popular, though not state sanctioned holiday. It’s certainly wandered a long way from its origin as a Catholic feast day, and even from Ireland. I’ve heard that it’s celebrated with more vigor here in America, and particularly in New York, with its famous parade. But the obvious connotation is with Irishness, which, as I explained in 2000, I expand to Celtic origin in general, allowing me, as at least a partial Scot, personal entrée to the Holiday.

Perhaps I’m stretching things, or just sentimental, but I’ve found Saint Patrick’s Day to be amenable to a surprisingly wide variety of musings: not just Celticism, but heritage and nostalgia as such, which I discussed in general terms in 2001, and in 2002 as a way of understanding why anyone would want to strand an unsuspecting Screech Owl in the Park. And of course there is its association with Spring, manifesting not just in a date proximate with the equinox but through the celebration of the color green in and of itself. In a better world each of the primary and secondary colors would have a holiday of their own, but, as I indicated last year, green is special, even if you’re not a plant. And I haven’t even gotten to the joys of drunkenness yet.

Ah yes, drinking. "That sweet poteen from Ireland green".
Do we drink to forget, or to remember? Just now I’m remembering a Saint Patrick’s Day almost a quarter century ago, one that showed me things I’d never seen before, and hope not to again. I was in school then, and a friend with a penchant for misguided adventures enticed me and two other pals into a dimwitted plan guaranteed to make us a small fortune. That would have amounted to maybe a couple of hundred dollars each, but hey, we were just college kids without much cash, willing to take a chance.

The scheme involved hawking Irish t-shirts at the Saint Patrick’s Day parade. My buddy had fallen in with a fellow (the boyfriend of a woman he did odd jobs for) who claimed to have done this at other fairs and parades, with lucrative results. Never mind that it was unlicensed vending, he’d asked a cop on the street who told him that wouldn’t be an issue. He drove the four of us over in his van, stocked with boxes of insipid t-shirts of the “kiss me I’m Irish” sort, and we hit the street.

Of course it was an unmitigated disaster. As we dispersed along Fifth Avenue, holding our wares in boxes which took both arms to support, shouting “git yer Irish t-shirts” over the roar of the crowd, one of us, a guy named Scott, (there was also an O’Conner, and our ringleader’s name started with Mc, so all were nominal Gaels,) was instantly picked up by the police for unlicensed street vending.

The rest of us were swept up in a maelstrom. Let’s just say people did not come to the parade looking to buy t-shirts. They were packed too tight to reach for a wallet if they had wanted to, but many had already been drinking for hours before the march even started, and they had other things on their minds. They were reeling and rocking; shouting obscenities; starting fights: all the sorts of things associated not so much with the Irish as with boors everywhere.

I’d say Scott was lucky to have been whisked away by the cops, but as soon as our sponsor bailed him out he was sent back out on the street where he was overwhelmed by a group of rowdies who covered him like vultures on a carcass, absconding with all of his shirts.

I actually did better than the others, selling more shirts than were stolen from me, but all of us were battered and a bit traumatized, and witness to things we’d rather not have seen. The rearing police horses, effecting “crowd control” were frightening, and the gang of white punks chasing a lone black kid into Central Park while shouting racial epithets was disheartening. Directly across from Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, where the crowd was thickest, I was literally lifted off my feet and carried along in the press, fearing for my life lest I should stumble and be trampled.

Needless to say, there were no profits. Our sponsor took a bath on the whole affair, and grudgingly gave us twenty bucks each for our pains: a poor wage even in those days. We were left with one of those memories you hope to laugh about at a later date. Well, I’m laughing now as best I can, and I suppose I learned something about a “great New York institution”, but maybe you can see why I eschew the popular profile of the Holiday for my own sort of romanticizing. They say the parade’s been cleaned up a bit since then, but you won’t catch me going back.

No, I’ll go to the Park instead, and maybe not until Spring comes in on Saturday, since this year Saint Patrick is clothed not in green, but in the white of a late winter snow storm. At least the inclement weather may prevent the sort of rowdy overflow that also marked the notorious Puerto Rican Day parade of 2000. That was an even more noxious day, but the comparison does serve to show that such antisocial behavior is mostly a matter of unleashed mob-passion, and not the province of any particular ethnic group.

Saint Patrick’s Day remains a hodgepodge of disparate impulses trying to congeal into an Irish stew. Spare me the corned beef; I’ll take the green of incoming Spring, and the music that plays on. Only two days ago I stood on the edge of the North Meadow and thought of a song from the Old Country called The Lark in the Morning. Indeed, it was a glorious morning, just before Winter’s (we hope) last blast, and I heard a tune, rare in the Park, and older than Ireland: the voice of the Easten Meadowlark. Enough for me to be drunk on, it rang out over the playfield which is a meadow in name only. Likewise, the bird is really in the blackbird family, lark being an Old World name brought over by our ancestors, along with their saints and holidays. Green they did not bring, but they found it here, the same in every land, where every Spring reminds us once again of the perfect Home of our desire.

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