The Luck of the Irish?- March, 2010

“If you had the luck of the Irish

You’d be sorry and wish you were dead,

You should have the luck of the Irish,

And you’d wish you was English instead”

In John Lennons’ song The Luck of the Irish, a forgettable song except for Yoko Ono’s atonal contribution, Lennon gives voice to the theory that the phrase, ‘ the luck of the Irish’,  may be a tad sarcastic.

Although there is a theory that the saying comes from a a few 19th century Irish and Irish American miners who discovered the famed Comstock Lode of silver, the saying still holds a tone of “ derision and contempt’ says Steve Gallagher, owner of Moncton’s  traditional Irish pub, The Old Triangle, because it implies that the Irish achieved their successes through dumb luck rather than talent or ability.

Lucky or not, the Irish and the ones who wish they were Irish, will be celebrating on Wednesday, March 17th.   And the imagery of St Patrick’s Day, the leprechauns, the green beer and the four leaf clover that have been created over the years in a mix of sentimentality and commercialism, will be plastered over many pub walls.

St. Patrick’s Day,  once a religious holiday celebrating the patron Saint of Ireland,  is now seen as a excuse to indulge in drinking and Irish jokes.

In the Old Country St Patrick’s day was just another day, says Linda Evans, researcher and historical geographer for the Irish Canadian Cultural Association of New Brunswick.  And in her own New Brunswick childhood, Evans remembers that celebrating St Patrick’s Day meant wearing a shamrock on her coat and going to mass.  After the mass the community would “have a gathering and they would often have a play, usually an Irish American play”.

Evans disagrees that the “luck of the Irish ‘ is an ironic saying, “I don’t think it is sarcastic. It goes back to old myths and stories and fables that they told each other, to cheer themselves up”.

But on the topic of the shamrock, Evans is stern. Evans warns against confusing the shamrock, an important symbol of Ireland, with the ‘lucky’ four leaf clover. St. Patrick used the three leaves of the shamrock to symbolize the Trinity of the Father, the Son and The Holy Ghost to the pagans in Ireland. The ‘lucky’ four leaf clover has nothing to do with Irish history or mythology.

Even the tradition of wearing green is somewhat suspect; it sort of depends on what side you are on.

Says Evans, “Actually if you wore Green (of course, The Troubles are nearly over now), but wearing green was a definite sign of supporting the IRA.  You were a  Republican if you wore the Green”.

And although we always connect the Irish with the Catholic Church, according to Edward O’Donnell, a historian and writer, several polls collected in the 1980’s demonstrated that “ A majority of Americans who identify themselves as Irish also identify themselves as Protestant”.

Finally, Evans finds the miserly leprechauns who appear on St Patrick’s Day offensive, and she is not alone in that.  “It is a little nauseating”, she says, “Part of the reason we exist (The Irish Canadian Cultural Association) is to destroy some of those stereotypes. The way that the drawings depict a leprechaun is sort of monkeyish. In the days of Charles Darwin, that is kind of how they depicted an Irishman”.

Says Linda, “I accepted all that claptrap that I was taught by my dad. But we had some members (of the Irish Association) in the very early years that were from Ireland and they would get offended with the leprechauns and they never wore green on St Patrick’s Day”.

“I don’t go in with the green beer and the Irish eyes are smiling and all that” says Steve Gallagher, whose wife’s father owned a pub outside of Dublin, “Some people in North America, they want to have their green beer, and we have had people smuggle in food coloring to put in their beer, and I am not going to say no to it.  But the real Irish, the ones that lived in Ireland and moved here, they kind of cringe at the whole thing”.

“St Patrick’s Day is actually a Holy day in Ireland”, says Steve Gallagher, “ And I am not sure how a saintly day, glorifying an ascetic Monk,  morphed into this sloppy huge drunken piss- up. I have no idea how that happened”.

Gallagher adds, “I think the Irish in diaspora, the Irish that left Ireland and ended up in the four corners of the world, took (the holiday) and basically wanted to celebrate their culture. They wanted the rest of the world to acknowledge that they were here, and they wanted to have their presence felt. And it just  so evolved that everyone else jumped on the band wagon as well. Why miss a party?”

Although there is no green beer on tap at The Old Triangle on St. Patrick’s Day, the doors open in the morning with a traditional breakfast with black and white pudding, and three different live bands are set to play in the evening with no cover charge.

“We pack it full of live music and people appreciate that” says Gallagher, “ No cover charge, and there will be music, dance, singing and drinking”. 

Ireland has only recently begun to celebrate St Patrick’s Day. “ Actually” says Evans, “They only started celebrating St Patrick’s Day in Ireland as a festival in 1995.  It was for the tourists, they wanted  to go to Ireland on St Patrick’s’ Day and when they got there they (the tourists)  found that nothing was going on.”

Says Gallagher, “ I was recently in Ireland for St Patrick’s Day and it has now taken on what North Americans do . They are just as crazy as we are. But twenty five years ago it wasn’t like that, it was more of a religious day”.

Learning about her Irish roots has been a lifetime occupation for Evans, who volunteers at the Thomas Williams’ House’s Irish Room on Fridays. The Irish Room holds all the Parish records of South Eastern New Brunswick, as well as maps and data bases for those searching for roots of their family name. Visitors from all over Canada and from ‘across the pond’ come to the Irish Room to find lost relatives and trace family names.

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