St. Patrick’s Day is upon us once more. How are you going to celebrate yours?
17th March is a set date in the religious, secular and Diaspora calendars. It’s a time of year that has many people out in the streets, not least the social scientist. For me, it is a hedonistic Rabelais-inspired Bacchanal, a time of excess - the grotesqueness of the body, the kitsch of the plastic Paddys, green beers and loose ‘Kiss Me Kate’ caps. I love it. So much so, last year I got engaged on St Patrick’s Day on the small British Overseas Territory in the Caribbean, Montserrat.
St. Patrick’s Day is a time, so they say, when ‘everyone is Irish for the day.’ This slogan is written onto the iron beams of the Guinness factory floor in Dublin for the tourist to nod to. But St. Paddy’s is not a day or series of events celebrated in the same way around the world. This is the thesis of the volume I recently edited with Dom Bryan, Consuming St Patrick’s Day inspired by our various experiences of ‘the day.’
I have sampled a few different ‘days.’ In Dublin, I have danced through an international salsa congress, spending breathers watching marching bands from Ireland and the US process through the streets, and admiring the excessive, over-sized carnival floats. In Belfast, where The Troubles have shortened the history of this public use of space, there have been the themed floats from a local carnival company and there is the typical stand-off between proud tricolour wavers and aggrieved Unionists fearful for where these public expressions might lead next. Just a few years ago, my anthropology students experienced police ‘kettling’ tactics fore-shortening their perceived ritual rowdiness. Other disputes have raged on St. Patrick’s Day in, for example, New York where LGBT organisations have been banned from this public use of space by the Ancient Order of Hibernian organisers: the shamrock event turned sham, a far cry from the inclusion and multiculturalism sought in London’s London Irish Centre where I will be on 17th March this year.
On the island of Montserrat, they have celebrated St. Patrick’s Day since the mid-1980s. I first attended their celebrations in 1995 when it was traditionally held in their St. Patrick’s village. Then, it was an all-day-all-night Jump Up – a street party followed by a Freedom Run around the island, a Slave Feast of traditional foods and sound systems set up through the village streets for the rest of the island to descend upon. A volcanic eruption starting that year destroyed the south of the island and closed the village forever (technically, deep in the no-go zone, it was surrounded by pyroclastic mudflow rather than over-run like most of that part of the island; you can still see parts of the village from helicopter flights).
Losing the physical connection to St. Patrick’s village has not diminished the significance of the events held on Montserrat. It is still one of the key festivals in the year. In the 1980s, American cultural anthropologist John Messenger wrote about the 17th March Jump Up as a political hijacking by island Afrophiles intent on taking back the Black Irish ethnic labelling he had articulated more than a decade earlier. The tensions on Montserrat are between a Black Irish celebration in ‘the Black and Green’ – or ‘the green and the gritty’ – of the Atlantic, and the significant commemoration of one of the early slave rebellions in that part of the world on 17th March 1768. There is still a week-long series of events that draws in tourists and returning Montserratians and each year a Montserratian gives the distinguished St. Patrick’s Day lecture.
St. Patrick’s Day is packaged, presented, consumed, celebrated, commemorated, accepted, rejected, co-opted, enjoyed and ruined. In Chicago, the river runs green; in Boston the veterans march alongside diasporic groups; in Tokyo it is an opportunity to parade and demonstrate a love for Ireland and all things Irish; in Sydney, the Opera House is lit up in green for the night. It is a prism, a global event through which identity-politics debates are played out locally, social theory is tested, and marketing strategies are refined. How are you going to spend yours?
“Lá fhéile Pádraig sona dhuit!”
Dr Jonathan Skinner, Reader in Anthropology, University of Roehampton
For a 50% discount on Consuming St Patrick’s Day edited by Jonathan Skinner and Dominic Bryan, enter the promotional code STPATRICKS16 when purchasing from Cambridge Scholars Publishing.