Today is Saint Patrick’s Day. It is also the day I celebrate my birthday. I would do this somewhat diffidently since the usual response to this fact is “How wonderful! You are Irish and born on Saint Patrick’s Day!” At the age of sixteen, I discovered evidence which strongly suggested that my Irish immigrant parents concocted this coincidence in the twilight moments of March 16th of my birth year. Perhaps in so doing they gave birth not only to a joyful yarn but also to a child who herself never understood the necessity of the strict boundaries of convention.
Despite teenage angst that invariably would accompany the discovery that one’s very date of birth was not what one thought it to be, I have very happy memories of the Saint Patrick’s Days of my life. Only now I understand that my parents, and most especially my mother, were “Irish cultural puritans.”
I received an email from my Dublin cousin today titled, “Happy Saint Paddy’s Day”, only to wince. I could hear my mother saying in her stern but nonetheless musical voice “Its Saint Patrick’s Day, for God’s sake, why is it so hard to say a Saint’s name properly?” I was taught that “Paddy” was an old British racial slur, much like many of the racial slurs we abhor in the United States which evolved against the poorest classes who were actual or defacto slaves. A paddy was possibly little better than an animal, ignorant, dirty, superstitious, sexually irresponsible, unhygienic, drunken, lazy, dishonest and stupid. This was the paddy under the British thumb. The paddy in the “new world” eventually evolved to shed some of these ethnic badges as he climbed into the working classes as a fire worker, police worker, plumber, carpenter, municipal worker or unionist. I remember the bemusement when I once suggested to a colleague that Paddy wagon was an ethnic slur. I wasn’t entirely joking.
It was somewhat enchanting to be a little girl spending birthday evenings in happy halls performing Irish dances,lyrical voices mixing with laughter and sentimental song. I recall the smell of beer and whiskey, but I genuinely do not remember drunks. There were never green hats, green neon suits, green beer and the shamrocks were real, living plants relatives imported from Ireland. Happy Birthday was often sung to me while I was sitting on my father’s lap, itchy and sleepy in my green wool dancing costume.
But what I remember most about my childhood Saint Patrick’s days are the quiet times with my mother. She allowed me to stay home from school on my birthday and it was often just the two of us alone together. Although March was meant to herald Spring, Saint Patrick’s Day was most often a day like today is: brisk, windy with intermittent clouds and sun, snow flurries surprising us at intervals. My mother and I would walk outside, maybe purchase some Daffodils at the Penn Fruit, and with rosy cheeks, holding hands return to the house perhaps after attending mass at Saint Alice’s, embracing the warmth with a hot drink and a sandwich. My mother would make brown sugar candy when we were alone together. Saint Patrick’s Day Dinner was usually a turkey dinner with Irish soda bread and vegetables. And of course Birthday Cake. Store Bought. While everything was cooking, we might take a nap on the sofa, lying head to feet, feeling “cozy” and safe.
My mother never “approved” of the Americanism of wearing green on Saint Patrick’s Day. “You are real Irish.” She would say. “You don’t have to wear green.” She never tasted a drop of alcohol to the day she died. My mother scoffed at the “traditional meal” of corn beef and cabbage: “I never tasted corn beef in my life!” Often a contrarian, she denounced the March 17 festivities of the Americans as “disgusting.” As long as she was able, she celebrated her Saint Patrick’s Day as a quietly, religious moment, embracing her culture and faith as she had in her beloved Donegal.
This time of year, as the season turns restless, I long to spend another March day with my mother. I am finally thankful to my parents for their old conspiracy late, late one March 16th. For by their creative paperwork, they provided me with experiences and memories I treasure and make annually revive.