Every day, I’m reminded of where I was born. I see my birthplace as a tree — my roots and foundation and the branches that shape who I am. These reminders come with a soft mist, a cup of tea, a tune, the freckles on my children’s faces, and the reddish-gold strands of their hair. These wisps bring Ireland flying back into my mind and nourish me on Martha’s Vineyard.
There is also the “feck” that falls from my mouth when the alarm goes off at 6 every morning.
But I don’t party for St. Patrick.
Growing up in Ireland, we kept our celebration for St. Patrick local. We groomed our horses till they shone, poked lumps of shamrock and tri-colored rosettes into their headbands and gathered at the village church for the “blessing of the animals.”
Goldfish bowls were held tightly, the dogs lined up behind the cats, and horses of every color and size brought up the rear. The priest shook his holy water over us, and reminded us that St. Patrick saved us by teaching us Christianity.
At about the same time I began to question Santa Claus, I also put a firm eye on the other man with the hat, staff, and colorful cloth.
Patrick came to Ireland and began to convert the Celtic pagans to Roman Christianity by using the three leaves of the shamrock to teach the Trinity: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost — and the stem: one God. The legend is that he banished the snakes from Ireland forever, but Ireland never had snakes. History tells us that he began to brutally banish the nonconforming Celtic pagans and their non-believing priests, the Druids.
I wonder now about the pagans who held seasonal celebrations for everything that sustained us, our food and water. They honored the elements, the equinox, and the solstice. And I wonder if shifting from celebrating Mother Nature and our connection with her to celebrating one God — and one man and his teachings — was the beginning of a divide rather than a unity? How would our society look now if we still aligned ourselves with the elements, with Mother Nature, the animals, ocean, and harvest?
But whatever about the what-ifs. St. Patrick is Ireland’s patron saint, and is revered like a hero. I just never imagined anyone else celebrated him like we did. Until I left Ireland.
In the mid-1990s, when I was 23, I moved from the small town of Howth — and its innocent goldfish blessings — to Washington, D.C., the political capital of the free world. I waited tables in the Dubliner, an Irish restaurant and hub on Capitol Hill.
My first St. Patrick’s Day was quite the shock.
America, as always, went bigger, bolder, and way off-script. I couldn’t believe it. We were getting out-Patricked by people from all over the world and from all different religious backgrounds, who were not just joining in the celebrations, but leading them.
Dancers filed out in poker-back unison, sporting heads of tight ringlets and dresses so glittery they’d blind you. Young men from Texas, Tahiti, and Timbuktu proclaimed their love for me (or the Irish in general); teary-eyed they were as I handed them their beer. They wore “Kiss me, I’m Irish” hats, and asked for pints o’ the green. I thought they were a few pennies short of a pound, and scratched my head at the number of people who told me in deep American accents that they were from Ireland.
“My great-great-grandfather was from Cork,” is another repeated line on St. Patrick’s Day. Interestingly, Cork was the main port of departure for millions of Irish from all over the country during the waves of emigration recorded in the mid-1800s. I learned that the worldwide St. Patrick’s Day celebration is more about who we Irish are than the man himself.
I love the fun, the chat, the sense of community that came with our old pub culture in Ireland. It’s where I learned about the importance of weather, when the fishermen talked about the tidal times and winds from the north — old men and young tucked up tight to the dark oak bar. Fireside, in pubs and taverns, I learned about the importance of politics as the men spoke in low voices about the laws that were coming to help farmers but hurt fishermen. I learned about song, and how one can stop all the chat and bring every ear to the words of the story between notes, of history and lament and always of love.
In America, I came to understand the importance of roots.
This year, I caught Mary Wolverton and her friends play the best of traditional music at the Newes Pub. I was fortunate enough to see Billy Meleady produce and star in the play written by the late great Brian Friel, “Molly Sweeney,” at the Vineyard Haven library.
Here’s my advice for anyone who wants to identify with their roots, if you can … go there. You will feel at home, no matter where you were born.
That’s exactly what I’ll be doing in April as I rediscover my hometown of Howth with Shane’s Howth Hikes and Trails.
Lara O’Brien writes for children, and sets her books in Ireland and Howth. She lives in Vineyard Haven with her husband and four children.