That leprechaun stole my euro!
And I need it to buy this beer, Oh
we’ll chase him down
The streets in town,
This weather must be sub-zero!
It’s the Friday before St. Patrick’s Day. I log onto Facebook, and find opinions of our newly elected Pope Francis, an “Ultimate Goat Edition Supercut” video, and a tempting photo of lemon tarts from the Sage Cafe. Dispersed among the randomness lies excitement for my favorite holiday, St. Patrick’s Day: Friends share recipes for green chocolate mint brownies. Mothers post photos of their children’s shamrock art. Bar owners advertise their annual celebrations and green beer. Scrolling along, I notice that one of my Irish friends is heading to Belfast for the weekend’s festivities.
I am immediately confused. I thought Northern Ireland is predominantly Protestant while the Republic of Ireland is mainly Catholic. So why would my friends go North to celebrate this Catholic saint’s feast day? Clearly, it is time for me to look into the whole Protestant/Catholic issue. Don’t judge me- I never learned this growing up in the US; I was busy coloring pictures of leprechauns and forming shamrocks out of clay. I seriously hope history lessons have improved since I was a kid.
After some research, here is what I have finally come to understand: Once upon a time (in the 1800’s), the Acts of Union joined Ireland with Great Britain, as the “United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.” But many Irish nationalists did not support the union and for years to follow, they would fight for their independence. There have been many “uprisings” in this country, led by Irish Republicans (or nationalists) who were against British rule over their land. For instance, in the early 1900’s, there was the Easter Rising. For six days during Easter week of 1916, a time when Britain was heavily involved in World War II, Irish Republicans sought to put an end to British rule and form their own Irish Republic. This took place mainly in Dublin, where by the end of the week, the Rising was put to a stop and its leaders were executed. Though that story, like many, has an unfortunate ending, it was significant because it ignited political discussion around Ireland’s independence. With all of this heightened awareness, support in favor of Ireland’s independence increased, and Irish folks won a majority of the seats in an election for the British parliament in 1918. The following year, they met to establish the Irish Republic. Well, that didn’t go over very well- the British government and Irish Unionists refused to accept the new nation, and this resulted in the Irish War of Independence. By the end of this two-and-a-half year long war, both sides agreed to a truce. Their discussions that followed led to the Anglo Irish Treaty which finally ended British rule in the Republic of Ireland. However, six counties wanted to remain loyal to Great Britain, so they formed Northern Ireland. And everyone lived happily ever after. The end.
Actually, that isn’t true. There’s much more to this story… Within those six counties of Northern Ireland, the majority of its residents were Protestant Unionist, but there also lived some Catholic Nationalists too. I’m sure you can imagine how that went over. Jumping over a few years, and through several arguments, a time period known as “The Troubles” began in the 60’s. The three decades to follow are far more complex than I can write about here, but in short, violence touched the lives of those living in Northern Ireland and its surroundings- over the issue of discrimination against minority Catholic nationalists (who wanted one Ireland), by the Protestant unionists (who wished to remain united with Britain). By the late 90’s a peace process began, and in 1998, the Good Friday Agreement was signed, which basically says that Northern Ireland would remain a part of the United Kingdom unless a majority voted otherwise. As you can imagine, this is still a touchy subject, and sporadic violence still exists.
Many foreigners come to Ireland without a clue about the heartache this country has endured. Although we Americans are often stereotyped as ignorant, I think a more appropriate term might be “unaware.” Here’s a prime example: In the States, it is common to order one of two drinks at an Irish pub: either an Irish Car Bomb (Irish Cream and Whisky dropped from a shot glass into a pint of Guinness, and chugged quickly before it curdles) or a Black and Tan (a pint of half Guinness and half pale ale). Here is why this is just wrong: Six years ago, when I visited Dublin on a long weekend vacation from Barcelona, I excitedly ordered “Two Irish Car Bombs please!” from the bartender- who looked at me, half-confused and half-offended, responding, “Do you mean a 911?” Car bombings took place in abundance during The Troubles, and here I am, asking for one in a pint glass! Totally embarrassed, I quickly learned my lesson. I’ve been reluctant to order “Irish Car Bombs” since, but continued to ask for “Black and Tans.” Until I recently discovered what that refers to: During the Irish War of Independence, the Black and Tans were British men who joined the IRC (Royal Irish Constabulary) to fight against the IRA (Irish Republican Army). The name comes from their khaki uniforms. But their reputation is a violent one, as they attacked Irish civilians in revenge for the IRA’s actions during the war. Humbled, I think I’ll stick with a simple Guinness from now on.
So where on earth does St. Patrick fit in? Nearly everywhere actually, thanks to commercialism! St. Patrick’s Day is celebrated all over the world: the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland, Britain, the United States, Canada, Argentina, New Zealand and Australia; I’ve also celebrated till I was nearly green in the face, when I lived in Spain. It’s all about the beer, shamrock bingy-bonger headbands, beer, traditional Irish music and dance, beer, leprechauns, green attire, and mainly, beer. It’s everywhere.
But it also must be about St. Patrick himself, right? I found out that it’s actually up for debate whether or not he was Roman Catholic. Catholics and Protestants each want to claim St. Patrick for their team, but all that is certain is that he was a Christian Missionary. Interestingly, Protestantism didn’t exist until after the Reformation anyway, and that occurred after St. Patrick’s time. Some say he followed Celtic Christianity. But what we know for sure is that he was born in Britain, was captured and taken as a slave to Ireland when he was 16 years old, and he lived there working as a shepherd, for six years. He wrote that his faith grew in captivity, that he prayed every day. He eventually escaped and made it back to his home. There, he entered the religious life and eventually returned to Ireland where he became a Bishop, and is said to have brought Christianity to Ireland. Some say he used shamrocks to explain the three parts of the Holy Trinity: the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit. He died on March 17th, and is apparently buried in a Cathedral in County Down, Northern Ireland. That Cathedral just happens to be part of the Church of Ireland, which may be referred to as Protestant.
So yes, St. Patrick may be a Catholic saint. And yes, his body may be buried in a Protestant church. And controversy may continue to exist over religion and politics here in Ireland. But regardless, St. Patrick is the patron saint of all of Ireland and its people. Maybe this day of parades and pints is more about unity than anything else. Well that, and Guinness, shamrock headbands, and leprechauns.
Now here we are- it’s March 17th, my favorite day of the year. Joe and I get our green on and catch the last half of the parade downtown. After the final fire truck goes by, we partake in the most traditional of traditions and order doner kebabs at a Turkish hole-in-the-wall. Roaming amidst Limerick’s buzz, we find stools near a fireplace in Cobblestone Joe’s Pub. Rugby on the big screen, a lively Irish folk band on stage, a roaring fire, pints galore, and a text from a friend saying, “What’s d craic like in town?” Yep, this is a full Irish St. Patrick’s Day!