St Patrick’s Day Ten Years On


I was in Ireland for Saint Patrick’s Day for the first time in 11 years. That I was not excited about this lends a lot to my own feelings about Saint Patrick’s Day as a day of Irish celebration, which probably isn’t helped by the whole institution of Saint Patrick’s Day around the world. But having been away from Ireland for such a length of time, I think my understanding of my own Irish identity and Irish identity in general have changed.

When I first went to Korea I was 23. I arrived on March 16, 2005, the last time I was in Ireland for Saint Patrick’s Day I was 22. I suppose I just missed the day, and at the time I knew that this was probably for the best. I was no fan of Saint Patrick’s Day back then.

While before I had never really considered its relevance or its connection to me or my Irish identity, something of a sucker punch came when I went into an alehouse I used to frequent. Shrouded in a darkness, the sunlight streamed through the permanent smokiness and silhouetted the pirouettes of stumbling celebrants enthused by A Nation Once Again shaking the very fibres of much strained PA system. It was two o’clock in the afternoon. It was a dubious WTF moment, and one I always remember and attest to an urgent desire to leave the country, and Korea is where I ended up.

My own story in Korea is one littered with its own confusion, in terms of Irish identity. I stumbled upon an Irish party on the days surrounding March 17, and wasn’t too enthusiastic about celebrating my identity then. I settled in to living and found a group of friends who saw a novelty in my Irishness which I tried not to embellish but soon got it into my head that I was the only Irishman in South Korea.

I used to spend a lot of time in Seoul expressing my distaste at my nationality, its failings, and why I was a better person not to be living there any longer. I knew several friends shared similar feelings back in Ireland, so it wasn’t something I was attempting to appear aloof about, at least not on my own anyway.

I wonder though that the longer you spend away, the longer you feel that you to try to find yourself, as opposed to the idea that you’re missing out on something. Mixing with people from around the world from many different backgrounds who proudly exclaim their nationality while you shyly question what is it that makes you stand out from others would have this effect.

Ireland was a very unfamiliar place in Korea, so there was very little to talk up. As much as I would try to offers faint words of praise towards Ireland, I’d spend an equal amount of time explaining where in fact Ireland was and that, despite its proximity to the United Kingdom it was not in fact a territory of the Queen, or attempting to talk down the hype of Irish drinking habits and love of Riverdancing to the tune of IRA marching songs. It was hard to find a middle ground.

I don’t imagine that this image of Irishness has disappeared, and while there are plenty who shun the whole idea of the image of an Irishman, they will feel the necessity to indulge in the inebriating elements of the celebration. Not that I have a problem with this, I suppose. It’s often a mid-week day off, and what better way to beat the hump than to have few drinks. For your sins, like.

There is a strong trend in Ireland which now sees over-drinking on St Patrick’s Day as something the national image could do without. Doing so robed in green and bedecked in shmarockery in the name of a saint in a increasingly secular society just doesn’t rock the boat seven days of the week. I’d fall into this category of Irish person, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t want to celebrate the day any longer.

Like it or not, Ireland’s national day is St Patrick’s Day. I often felt that we needed some kind of an independence day or a day that at least allows us to recognise the achievements of those who saw about Ireland’s independence from England. Ireland being Ireland though, some would never see us truly independent seeing as we still have the six counties in the north as part of the UK, while there are plenty of elements who could never stand for approving of the actions of De Valera or Collins camp.

I think that Paddy’s Day has allowed us, more and more in recent years, to celebrate ourselves a little more than any other kind of national celebration would allow. While the parades and bedecking in green seem to be embellished habits from abroad, they certainly have allowed for the new identity of St Patrick’s Day to shine through. The parade in Dublin and the hundreds of thousands of revellers are far removed from the local parades which town after town celebrates in as much fashion as the community can muster.

When I helped out with the St Patrick’s Day festival in Seoul, we saw about doing the same thing, but in a slightly different way. You would always do your best with what you had, and we would regularly muster together as much Irish cultural talent as possible. This would include Irish dancers, US army bands playing Irish ballads and songs, a Korean U2 tribute band, some class of an Irish-Canadian folk rock six piece, and a guitar wielding human juke box from Bray performing across the afternoon, while in the background all forces of paddywhackery were out in force encouraging and inviting new participants into the madness that is Irishness in Korea.

Community was the essential element, even if it meant participating in a field of plastic Paddy inspired mayhem. The more bodies the better was the philosophy of choice, because let’s not forget this was a party we having. It was so much fun and such a success that we didn’t mind the moans from locals and the endless tidy-up come six o’clock.

In Blanchardstown in Dublin where I now live, and in Dunboyne were I spent my formative years there are now community parades. They don’t appear to have much resembling the hype of our Seoul shenanigans, and they pale in comparison to the big one in Dublin. Regardless, the faces throughout are smiling as big as any other parade, and they are faces you could recognise, maybe not now but in a couple of weeks when you’re in the local Supervalu or Spar.

As a parent though, I found it encouraging to see so many kids at the centre of the parade, marching, kicking, dancing, whistling, and chanting. These little things, small as they are and as insignificant as they seem mean a lot to these families who get to see each other having their own little moment as the centre of attention.

This far from a bad thing, because regardless of who we are we always need to feel a little bit important, and to have a sense of place in our community. This community can be a small village in the west of Ireland, a suburb or Dublin, or a shower of foreigners clattered together in one of the largest cities on the planet a mere 8,000 kilometres away from home.

 

Letter from Korea, November 2013


Suwon, South Korea
November 2013

Dear Ireland

If you had asked me at this exact time and date one year ago if I could imagine how my life would be in one years time, I certainly would have described something completely different from how it is now. In fact, to the best of my knowledge I have no idea how I imagined my life to be at this time, but what imagination I did have lacked the drama and dalliance which filled in the other 364 days that filled in the space between.

The reason I’m dwelling on this is because at around this time, about 9.45pm, myself and Herself were resting at home after a meal of grilled eel (good for stamina, you know) in a local restaurant, from which we walked to and from, it being a warm and pleasant evening for late November. We were preoccupied however. The next morning we would go to the hospital and Herself would have her labour induced, having reached her final nine months of pregnancy. The doctor was worried about the size of the baby’s head.

We had read reports of the effects of the inducement on the baby and had hoped for a natural labour. But this is the twenty-first century and we were thankful that whatever would come about would be for the best, and having a happy and healthy baby was the most important thing.

We ended up relaxing a little too much until we realised that we actually were going to have a baby the next day, and started to get ready, half arguing about why we’d relaxed so much and that we should be prioristising. We threw a few things together and promised to finish the job when we got up in the morning, and both of us went to bed.

I fell asleep promptly, while herself was restless, being nine months pregnant and all, and sat up reading. At around two or three o’clock she elbowed me awake and told me that she had a pain in her abdomen. Earlier she said she had cramps but she passed them off as exactly that, cramps. She pulled back the bed clothes to get up and go to the bathroom, and her entire bottom half was soaking wet, like as if she had sat in a bath and just stood up. We looked at each other in the eye with realisation, thinking for a half a second in both fear and wonder, so that’s what your water breaking looks like.

Within thirty minutes we had dressed comfortably, grabbed what was required, and were making our way down in the lift to the car. Dongtan Jaeil Hospital was waiting.

I suppose we were lucky that our doctor was on call that night, herself two months pregnant, and that we lived a mere fifteen minutes from the hosptial. In many respects we may also have been lucky that Herself’s labour only lasted around four hours. But then we were unlucky that her contractions were especially difficult, and this was made more difficult by my desire to get to the hosptial as quickly as possible, and the fact that a good stretch of the road was made up of potholes.

I don’t know about other fathers, but I thought about it the other day and wondered if the cultural stereotype brought on by ‘we’re-having-a-baby’ type films hadn’t forced the notion that the hospital can only be reached successfully if one drives over 60 miles/100 kilometres an hour, perhaps that night would have been a little less eventful. If that is possible.

Even when we were on the nice flat recently paved streets before the potholed chicanery and four wheel drive like antics ahead, breaking suddenly terrified she’d have the baby in the actual driving street was probably just as bad. Still when I drive down the same road to the same hospital it is that stretch over bumpy potholes where I feel a little shudder run up through me, and I thank myself that I didn’t in fact make a complete mess of it.

To cut what is becoming a long story short, little +1 popped out of her mammy’s womb at around 6.40am on Friday, November 23, 2012. Since then I don’t think I could say I am the same person. I don’t think any parent would even bother comparing their life before kids and after.

I feel now that after a year everything that happened before didn’t happen, or that it happened but +1 was always there with us. I look at her now, sleeping in some haphazard cruciform pose on the bed beside me, and if I try to think how my life would be without her, it is impossible. It has only been one year, but perhaps it is one which I will remember the most, and I can’t wait for more of the future we are unfolding together.

Happy first birthday little +1 (a.k.a. Maggot!)