You're probably reading this on March 18, but I'm writing it on March 17, and as I write it, 500,000 people (according to the always-reliable Huffington Post) are jammed into the streets of Dublin to celebrate St. Patrick's Day.
I am not among them. I would not be among them if I were in Dublin. I would not be among them if I were on the streets of Dublin. I would be a lonely, somewhat foreboding spot of non-green, like a drop of antiseptic in the middle of a culture of bacteria.
Irish though I am, I have to admit that ostentatious Irishness, in all its manifestations, makes me wish I were Jewish. Or Hungarian. Or Jewish-Hungarian. Or a mixed species, perhaps part greyhound. I'd be quick, narrow-waisted, and glossy, and no one would ask me why I'm not wearing green.
It's always bewildered me that--despite the fierce strains of melancholy, loss, lyricism, anger, and alcoholism that have claimed permanence of place in the Irish character, like genes on a chromosome--most of what I think of as "postcard Irish" or "boarding-pass Irish" is so twee. Sentimental ballads about Irish eyes; large men in boots hopping up and down without moving their arms; leprechauns, for Christ's sake.
Originally, leprechauns were something to take seriously. In the first written mention of them, they're water sprites whose idea of a merry prank is to drag a sleeping man into the sea and drown him. Only when he awakes and subdues them do they offer him three wishes in exchange for their lives. Over the centuries, they've been housebroken and domesticated, turned into Munchkins with pipes and brogues and twinkles, eager to share their gold with whoever can get to the end of the rainbow.
I suppose it's twinkle that I most object to, and it's Vaudeville and Hollywood who are probably most to blame for that. No Vaudeville show worth a nickel was without its "Pat and Mike" act, two dubious Irishmen with thick brogues and great naivete, who comically got wrong all the news of the day while unknowingly stripping away "official" perspectives to accidentally get things right--an unendurable stereotype that wasn't sweetened by the act-closing revelation that one of them possessed an Irish tenor perfect for the most lachrymose ballads of the day.
But Hollywood really poured it on. Twinkle went widescreen in the movies, with Errol Flynn (born in Tasmania but transformed into a native of Ireland by Jack Warner's publicity people) twinkling at one end of a sword, and Barry Fitzgerald twinkling in a priest's cassock, and John Wayne, who had the world's most ponderous twinkle, slugging Victor McLaglen across half of County Cork and back again in John Ford's "The Quiet Man" while Maureen O'Hara fretted and fumed, all red-headed, at the edge of the screen. The Irish, as Hollywood saw them, were always either fighting or drinking, or fighting and drinking, or fighting and drinking and crossing themselves. And twinkling, always twinkling.
I prefer the magical, tragic, mist-enshrouded Ireland of Yeats and Synge and Augusta Gregory and James Joyce and even Wilde, an Ireland where the flow of words papers over the yawning chasms and lurking catastrophes of everyday life. Where the real St. Patrick was kidnapped from Wales at the age of 16 and enslaved on the Emerald Isle, later returning to minster to a lonely scattering of 5th-century Christians. Where leprechauns were dangerous, and the poor drew together against the absentee landlords who would starve them. Where it's cold and raw much of the time and the peat smoke is choking in midwinter and only the whiskey lets in the light.