It is March 18th, the day after the day before. Ireland is suffering from a giant hangover. Callers to radio shows throughout the day describe how the Irish have made a show of themselves in front of the whole world, and newsreaders are suggesting that the level of disgraceful drunkenness was unprecedented. Things have never been so bad.
It is a fact that a huge amount of alcohol is consumed on the national holiday. But drinking, getting involved in fights and eventually falling over is not a new way to celebrate. “Drunkenness, riot and disorder prevailed to an extent which was frightful to contemplate…“. This is how one newspaper described St Patrick's Day. On March 18th, 1847.
Throughout the nineteenth century, celebrations were marked by wearing green, adoring the shamrock and indulging liberally in alcohol. Drunkenness was such a feature of the day that it became a focus point for the temperance movement. Anti-drink parades on St. Patrick's Day were happening on a national scale from the 1840s. The British authorities, aiming to make the Irish behave soberly “so March 17th could be celebrated to honour the empire on St Patrick's Day”, supported the movement.
The serious young men and women of the Gaelic League then picked up the cause as part of a widespread nationalist campaign against alcohol. Their aim was to create an “appropriate” national day for “decent and respectable people”. In attempts to protect Irish culture and morale, some of the founding fathers and mothers suggested that pubs were a foreign invention and therefore to be avoided. After two decades of campaigning, they succeeded in making St Patrick's Day dry. In 1924 the newly independent Irish State decreed that all public houses were to close on the national holiday. The doors did not open again until the licensing laws were changed in the early sixties.
These mothers and fathers of the revolution were keen to cleanse the image of the feast day, changing it from a noisy fair day to a puritan Sunday, lightened by Gaelic games and other more wholesome entertainment. And change it they did. The new policy introduced a national holiday that was as grey as the rain that regularly drenched it. It became a dull, static anniversary devoid of enjoyment. Another news clipping dated March 18th, this time from 1953, sums it up nicely: “St. Patrick's Day was much like any other day, only duller“.
So why such a big fuss about a bit of drunken rowdiness? Indulgence on St Patrick's Day has a long tradition. Despite the best efforts of the moral guardians of the new State, pubs survived and as soon as people got a chance, they revived them as centers of the national holiday celebrations. In the early part of last year, when debating the smoking ban, few objected to the description of the pub as an integral part of national culture and identity. If it is so central to our Irishness, is it not an appropriate place to celebrate the national holiday?