by Jane Keating; photography by BTA

Probably the most stereotyped holiday in the world gets new meanings

st patrick's day.jpg

On Saint Patrick's Day everyone wants to be Irish, or so they say. All over the world, from Sydney to San Francisco, people will put on something green and take to the streets to cheer colourful and goodhumoured parades. However improbable, for over a decade such events have been annual fixtures in Moscow and Tokyo.

Perhaps it's not so surprising. Ireland's much loved patron saint was not even Irish but was born in Roman Britain or perhaps Gaul, sometime in the second half of the fifth century. The Irish themselves have successfully surfed the tides of globalisation for at least 150 years. Why confine the festivities to the 70 million people around the world who claim Irish descent? Why not have a global party that everyone can enjoy?

There are many entertaining legends about Patrick's efforts to convert the Irish to Christianity, among them, that he banished the snakes from Ireland. A good story but sadly not true as it was actually the last Ice Age that got rid of them.

In Ireland Saint Patrick's Day was traditionally a day of religious observance. People would wear untidy bunches of shamrock on their lapels and this we still do with great pride. This little green plant with three leaves on a single stem was used by Patrick to explain to the Irish the concept of the Trinity. As the feast day falls within Lent, this allowed people to break their fast, eat meat and have a drink (or two).

Irish emigrants in the United States could not recreate their traditional dish of boiled bacon and cabbage and so substituted cheap and available corned beef. Corned beef and cabbage is now the most emblematic dish of Irish America and it is assumed that in Ireland we eat it regularly. On Saint Patrick's Day they even drink green beer. Their Irish cousins regard this with more shock than awe.

It is in America, with its greatness of spirit and imagination, that the celebration of Saint Patrick's Day really developed. Right from the start, Irish emigrants and exiles celebrated with nostalgia a homeland that few ever expected to see again. The parade in Boston dates back to 1737 and New York's to 1756. By contrast, until recently, parades in Ireland were relatively simple affairs, inevitably marked by that rapid and kaleidoscopic succession of seasons characteristic of the Irish climate and often involving such interesting natural phenomena as horizontal rain, diagonal sleet and bouncing hailstones.

We cannot do much about the weather but we do know how to throw a party. Over ten years ago we decided we would have the best Saint Patrick's Day celebrations of them all. We discarded the word "Day" from the title and we instituted the Saint Patrick's Festival in Dublin which lasts for the nearly a week (For more information, see

Saint Patrick has even made it to Bulgaria. If you visit Muglizh near Stara Zagora you can see in the church of St Nikolay Chudotvorets a fresco of Saint Patrick with Saints Cyril and Methodius. This was commissioned by the extraordinary Pierce O'Mahony, who came to Bulgaria just over a hundred years ago to help orphans of the Ilinden uprising.

To celebrate Saint Patrick's Day in Sofia, there is an annual charity event organised by members of the city's small but generally perfect Irish community. This year the party will take place on Friday, 16 March, and the proceeds of the evening will go to the premature baby unit of a hospital in Sofia. Everyone is welcome, provided you're prepared to enjoy yourself (for further information telephone 985 3425).

I think Pierce O'Mahony would be pleased.


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