November 30, 2023

St. Patrick’s: The One Day When Everyone’s Blood Runs Green

By Clark Miller | March 10, 2018

May misfortune follow you the rest of your life, but never catch up. — Irish toast

No one likes a buzzkill. So this St. Patrick’s Day, let there be rivers of green beer, a parade through Traverse City, and enough revelers of real (or imagined) Irish ancestry to make a respectable showing downtown.

The celebration of Ireland’s patron saint falls on a weekend — Saturday, March 17 — so it’s sure to be quite the celebration this year.

The epicenter of all non-church-related events is Kilkenny’s Irish Pub. But Mike Shirley, a longtime member of the local chapter of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, an American-Catholic-Irish(ish) charity, assures us that local bars of all heritage will participate with glee. 

“I hear it’s their No. 1 day of the year,” he said.

He should know.

To Mike and his Hibernian brothers, the high holy days are Easter, Palm Sunday, and Christmas. St. Patrick’s Day, on the other hand, they call “the holiest of days.” (Which should not obscure the good works the brothers do for the Father Fred Foundation.)

So, no killing of buzzes here.

But — notice how the word “but,” always raises its head? — it might be fun to learn how the highest of all holy days became so soaked in American-ness.

Green Beer
Green beer is a case in point. It’s supposed to remind us of the Emerald Isle, shamrocks, and lovable but ornery leprechauns. Oddly, though, green beer is definitely not an Irish thing. Dropping blue dye (yes, blue) into beer sprang from the mind of coroner’s physician Thomas H. Curtin, who in the early 1900s thought to color beer green for the enjoyment of his New York social club.

Obviously, it caught on. 

By 1910, the Spokane News had already given green beer this decidedly mixed review: “It tastes like beer and looks like paint.” At least that beats the other way around.

Even so, Alli Correia, assistant manager of Kilkenny’s, won’t be turning any of her beers green.

"It’s a mess, and it’s not really an Irish tradition. Also, it might affect flavor,” she says.

Also consider the St. Patrick’s Day parade through Traverse City. It has become a time-honored tradition thanks, of course, to our Hibernian brothers who have been hosting it for 40 years.

Still, the St. Patrick’s Day fervor in America surprises an Irish friend of mine.

“It wasn’t until I visited Chicago that I first heard about the green river and parades,” she says. “In Ireland it’s more of a religious holiday, especially for Catholics, but for Protestants, too. And some don’t celebrate at all. People mostly go to church, then have a quiet meal with their family.”

To me, that sounds like the opposite of a parade time. Could it be … Irish as spoilsports? That seems impossible.

St. Patrick Not Irish?
Maybe the more restrained celebration in Ireland is because St. Patrick wasn’t Irish. Not a drop of him. He made two trips to Ireland, though, and that should count for something. The first time, he came as a slave. After six years of that, he’d had enough, and escaped back to Roman Britain.

There, he had a vision, which seems to be something saints often have.

His was twofold: First, he saw that he was to become a priest. Second, he was to return to Ireland. As a former slave there, that would have stopped me cold, but Patrick believed he had a job there: to convert as many lost souls as possible to Catholicism.

One more thing about St. Patrick. Don’t blame the guy for all the malarkey about him running the snakes out of Ireland. By all accounts, there were no snakes in the country at the time, and there still aren’t. To pretend otherwise would be like us saying Gordie Howe ran all the purple elephants out of Michigan. After all, do you see any?

How to Make Yourself Irish
All of that said, those of us who stay here year-round know: We need some levity in the middle of Up North winters. But — man, that word again! — should that open the tap, so to speak, for Americans “playing the Plonker” (Irish slang for fool) after too much vitamin G (Guinness)?

The Irish even have a name for Americans who take on the accoutrements of Irishness and then take it a stitch too far: Plastic Paddy. As my compatriot from the Old Country describes it so well, these are the non-natives who go “do-lally in the head,” “barking mad,” and — my favorite — “away with the fairies.”

None of that’s for you, right?

I’ve met American fiddlers who identify so strongly with Irish tunes they begin talking (sort of) like they were born in Dublin instead of Detroit. They are not alone. My Irish friend recently met an American who, despite no ties to the old country, had a bad case of the Plastic Paddy, this urgent need to “outIrish” the Irish. 

“As soon as he found out where I’m from, he started into a truly bad imitation of an Irish accent and wouldn’t quit,” she says. “It was hard not to laugh, but I didn’t.”

She let this guy got off easy. She could have called him a Gombeen, or eejit, or any number of other Gaelic slurs.

As Irish journalist Valerie Loftus points out, “For a country so small, we certainly have no shortage of ways to insult and upset each other.”

Why Do We So Love the Irish?
I’ve always wondered about the fascination with all things Irish. As it turns out, so has my Irish friend, who tells me, “If you figure it out, let me know.”

There are theories.

Mike Shirley, the Hibernian brother, boils it down to three things: “They’re friendly, they speak English, and they’re Catholic.” Out of respect, I don’t point out that Protestants hold a slight edge in Northern Ireland and, gasp, they’re even a known quantity in the Republic. But in writing this, I notice that for most people, “Ireland” doesn’t seem to extend very far North, maybe because of the “Troubles” and all.

My Irish friend freely acknowledges that her people can be testy. “They don’t suffer fools easily,” she says. “They’ll take the mickey [i.e., spunk] right out of you, especially if you’re talking gibberish about the Irish.”

That, my St. Patrick’s Day revelers, sounds like a warning. In other words, she’s pleasantly suggesting that on this holiest of days we:

•      Be dog wide and not a dosser (i.e., Be extra vigilant and not a lazy lout).

•      Go light on the drink link (i.e., Avoid extra trips to the ATM for more drinking money).

•      Not come home all flitters and fluthered (i.e., Don’t come home on St. Patrick’s Day all tattered and drunk).

There’s simpler advice, too, she adds. Develop some Irish charm; it’s also a national trait. And remember the right answer to the old question, What is Irish diplomacy?

It’s the ability to tell a man to go to hell, so that he will look forward to making the trip.


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