In the United States, St. Patrick’s Day is a legendary celebration of leprechauns, green beer, and raucous joviality. The general assumption, given the stereotype of Ireland as the land of drinkers, is that the party is just as insane here as it is in the U.S. However my St. Patrick’s Day experience in Galway was quite different from back home.
Back in St. Paul, my typical St. Patrick’s Day begins with Mass at the Cathedral with my family followed by breakfast in commemoration of the religious feast day. After breakfast, we walk downtown to the Landmark Center for the entertainment of the day. Every year the Irish Music and Dance Association hosts the St. Patrick’s Day celebration there with music, dance, a Celtic market, lectures, and many other activities.
My favorite part has always been the Irish dancing. I can sit for hours watching the different schools from around the Twin Cities perform at their best, marvelling at their speed and skill, and wishing I had taken lessons. After the dancing finishes, I love just sitting back and listening to the traditional music which is played all day long. But most of all, I love the feeling of connectedness in and celebration of an Irish heritage.
When the day is spent and everyone is tired and hungry, my family heads home for the corned beef that has been slow-cooking all day in Guinness. After dinner sometimes a few of us will venture out to a ceili dance, but more often we spend the night watching such Irish-themed movies as The Quiet Man and Waking Ned Devine. By all accounts our St. Patrick’s Day is quite tame compared to national average.
Given all that I had heard about St. Patrick’s Day in Ireland, my expectations for the day were very different from what they would have been back home. I was expecting a low-key celebration with perhaps a small parade and lots of music. As it was, my experiences in Galway turned out quite different from what I was expecting when I woke up that morning.
The first thing that was different here was that in Ireland, St. Patrick’s Day is a state holiday, which meant that many places were closed for the day including college. This also meant that my apartment complex was wild with parties the Monday night before as everyone made the most of their time off.
Mass that morning was a different experience as well. While the general format was obviously the same, it lacked the celebratory pomp and circumstance I had come to expect on this particular day. Back in St. Paul, the Mass itself represents an homage to Ireland with parts of the Mass spoken in Irish and with the Irish national anthem even sung alongside the American. At the very least, I expected the Mass in Galway to be at least partially in Irish. It ended up being a simple Mass in English with a focus on remembering what St. Patrick stood for rather than celebration.
After Mass I ate a delicious full Irish breakfast and found a spot with my friends to watch the parade. I could not believe all the people crammed into our little city. There must have been at least a couple thousand, more than I had ever seen in Galway. That being said, a large portion of the crowd was made up of tourists; everywhere I went I heard various languages and accents, including many American voices. I was further surprised because everywhere I looked I saw “Kiss Me I’m Irish” shirts and leprechaun hats and beards. This might not be surprising from an American point of view, but I had always been told that such attire rarely made its appearance in Ireland. It goes to show how much the American influence has affected the holiday.
My friends and I spent the afternoon wandering around the city looking for music and enjoying the beautiful sunlit warmth we had been granted for the day. Despite the day, traditional music was fairly difficult to find. Even in the pubs we managed to get into often were playing American pop. We did manage to find a place with music but the lack of available seating meant a short stay. I was also stunned by the lack of Irish dancing. We did finally find some dancers and so I was able to check that off my list, but it put into perspective how much of what are considered traditions were actually born in Irish-America.
While many people sat outside and enjoyed the beautiful weather it seemed as if we found the highest densities of Irish people in the pubs watching rugby enjoying a pint and their day off. The hectic activity outside seemed to be left to the tourists and the young people.
With regard to drinking though, I think Ireland might be on par with the United States. Not only were pubs full from noon onward, but people were blatantly drinking in public, which on a normal day is illegal. As it was, we passed a group of people who each had five or six bottles in front and around them standing not far from two Garda (police officers). Clearly the focus was on containment since arresting thousands of people would have been impossible. As the afternoon dwindled authorities even had to block off a walkway by the river for fear of people stumbling and falling in!
My friends and I spent our evening looking for open seats in pubs before heading home as the clock struck midnight, our St. Patrick’s Day a success.
Overall I think the biggest difference in my St. Patrick’s Day experiences was the prevalent feeling. Whereas at home there is an emphasis on pride in being Irish, the attitude here in Ireland is more about celebrating a fun day with friends and family more than in praising being distinctly Irish.