What a Real Irish Person Thinks About How Americans Celebrate St. Patrick's Day

I lived in Ireland for almost 30 years, ever since I was a tiny Celtic baby. As a slightly larger Celtic child, I wasn't very patriotic. On St. Patrick's Day we would go to church and have a roast dinner, sometimes with green ribbons in our hair. Even my father would put two little ones on either end of his moustache. (He wouldn't, but that idea makes me laugh, because green is not his color.)

I never thought much about St. Patrick's Day until I moved to the United States and witnessed the green, sparkly fever that sweeps across the country on March 17. St. Patrick's Day has moved here and somehow body-swapped with a well-meaning but not very informed college student, bursting with confidence and glitter and money. I love the sentiment of Irish culture being celebrated. I just don’t fully understand the rituals.

Here are the differences between St. Patrick's Day here in America and back in the old country:

1. "Traditional Irish dancing"

In America people (often women) wear giant wigs of ringlets and dance in embroidered dresses to traditional Irish music and call that "Irish dancing." They are so earnest and out of breath, they haven't yet noticed that in Ireland today people express themselves through dancing to popular music, using thrusting hip movements and a low squatting stance. It's just the way our culture has evolved.

2. Corned beef?

In America people eat corned beef. In Ireland people do not. Ever. Not on Hallowe'en, not during Purim, not on St. Patrick's Day. We prefer to eat American food. We like a nice mom-and-pop operation, so family restaurants like McDonald's and plucky coffee houses like Starbucks are all supported lovingly and loyally by the proud Irish nation.

3. Green rivers

In America city workers dye the rivers green. Often, of course, the rivers here are already green, but it's not that toxic-looking shade that the Irish landscape is renowned for, so they add a special dye named "nightmare viridian" to make it so. In Ireland nobody dyes the rivers. They just put plenty of fluoride in to a) help prevent tooth decay, or maybe b) make people docile, or perhaps even c) make people imagine that they're being made docile.  

4. But it's a national holiday in Ireland.

In America people have to go to work, but it's a holiday in Ireland, so people generally barbeque or go to the beach instead of the office (the unemployment office, keeping everybody busy since 2009).

5. In Ireland, everyone's invited to the parade.

In America some St. Patrick's Day parades ban gay people from marching under their own banner. In Ireland everyone is allowed and encouraged to march around their big cities or little villages and have a great time or a miserable time, depending on the height of their stilettos.

6. Who is St. Patrick?

In America nobody is quite sure who St. Patrick actually is. In Ireland we know him well. Everyone's like, "Oh yes, that guy with the white beard and reproachful look in his eyes, always doing the peace sign." St. Patrick exploits that anonymity in New York City. I did a bit of digging and actually found a profile on Tinder that might be his. This guy's hobbies include Zumba and shepherding; he doesn't like snakes and he wants to meet "somebody who is open to converting from paganism." He didn't specify which gender that special somebody had to be, yikes! Don't tell the New York City 5th Avenue parade committee!

7. "Let me show you my Lucky Charms."

In America people wear large green hats, green Mardi Gras beads, sunglasses shaped like shamrocks and T-shirts with hilarious slogans on them, erroneously mimicking the outfits worn by the earliest Irish immigrants. In Ireland people mainly wear denim dungarees, unless they are just relaxing at home for the day, in which case they wear an outfit made from a softer, more comfortable fabric.

8. The search for shamrocks

In America people go to a lot of trouble to find real, proper shamrocks. In Ireland people pin fake shamrocks to their coats. I've never seen a real shamrock, but today my friend is bringing some over. He has thoughtfully dried it out, and instead of pinning it on our coats, we're going to smoke it. Again, this is a tradition unheard of in my country. But he's insisting, and seeing as I'm Irish I only have to give him $90 and let him stay over for two nights whenever suits him.


Overall, though, apart from the binge drinking, I'm glad to see St. Patrick's Day is getting props in the U.S. It's wonderful to see everybody in a country as diverse and busy as this one join together to celebrate Ireland, our cold-but-warm, no longer gold but still very green, funny-but-serious little country.

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Maeve Higgins

Irish born writer and comedian in Brooklyn

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