Every year, people all over the world celebrate the Irish on St. Patrick’s Day: an awkward celebration that mixes the notion of Patrick being an Irish hero, as well as the stereotype that the Irish do nothing but “drink, and drink, and drink, and drink, and drink, and drink, and fight.”
Before diving in head first to kiss the Blarney, I think a few things should be pointed out:
1 – Saint Patrick was actually English, not Irish.
2 – He was hardly a hero, and sought to eradicate the pagan faith the Irish traditionally had in order to convert them all to Christianity (so I suppose your faith can decide for you whether or not he was really a hero).
3 – The Irish, you may be surprised to know, are not all drunks and fighters. They’re actually people like the rest of us (always strange to me how this is forgotten).
Now it may seem like I’m purposely trying to kill the buzz that is the most drunken night of the year, with maybe New Year’s Eve as exception, but it’s important to separate these things from something important like traditional Irish music; a style of music that came out of oppression and war, and famine, and poverty. One might say it is entirely accurate, symbolically, to play and listen to Irish music on St. Patrick’s Day as a reminder of the hardships the Irish have suffered, including St. Patrick himself.
That being said, I found myself in Ottawa this past March 17, at the Firkin & Knight: a British pub which I found instantly ironic, given Patrick’s origin. I was slated to open for a wonderful folk band called Another Level. As the bar filled up, I noticed the Guiness and Jameson pouring unreservedly.
I plugged in my twelve-string Tak, and played three hours of traditional Irish and Canadian folk tunes. I realized something as I sat there, watching the crowd hoot and holler: I realized that the Irish spearheaded a form of music that one doesn’t often hear today, excepting on St. Patrick’s Day.
Their ballads: songs of great sorrow and pain; of love and loss; of the determination of a people, in spite of the odds stacked against them.
Their dance numbers: Originally the point of much of their traditional music, to keep spirits high, and let me tell you, these songs do just that – poking fun at their lot in life, throwing it all to the wind, gallivanting about the village, and causing trouble for their oppressors.
Each of the songs I played, even when I got to the much newer, Canadian pieces, born of that tradition, I discovered, really tells a story. A complete epic in so few verses.
We may all enjoy the aesthetics of St. Patrick’s Day and err on the side of the superficial, but underneath the orange and the green is a deep well of heart and soul, and a memory; a great memory with many tales of great and terrible things.
Next year, when you pull out your green bowler hat, and shamrock, and your Pogues albums, really listen to the lyrics. And I encourage you not just to listen to the heavy drinking songs (though many of them are filled with great history), but also listen to the great ballads of Tommy Makem and the Clancy Brothers, The Dubliners, even the Irish Rovers.
I hope and pray, as Mary did “‘round the fields of Athenry”, that you see past the whisky haze and really feel the breadth and depth of the Irish music tradition.