St Patrick’s Day is not normally a holiday I celebrate, in spite of my name. Oh, maybe I’ll make a loaf of soda bread, but I refuse to wear Kelly green, which I think is just an awful colour and I am deeply horrified by the sight of drunken young men in leprechaun hats and by all the blatherskite associated with the worst North American celebrations of the day. In Philadelphia the drunken pub crawls around the University of Pennsylvania actually start the weekend before St Patrick’s Day, in Chicago they dye the river green. And this nonsense has actually now migrated back across the Atlantic to Ireland itself, where I understand that towns compete to see who can get more people to dress up like leprechauns (I’m not fond of leprechauns, as you may have guessed by now!). My inclination is to skip all of this tasteless absurdity and stay home with a pint of Guiness and perhaps watch Michael Collins again because, really, isn’t it always a good thing to spend an evening with Liam Neeson?
So when James pointed out that I’d be in Halifax over St Patrick’s day and suggested that we do something to celebrate, I was initially dubious, until I realized that my son has, at least in this respect, inherited my own good sense and was determined to avoid the pubs. We decided instead to cook a large meal for the band of his friends who congregate at his house on weekends. The menu would consist of a vat of Irish stew, a mountain of colcannon (potatoes mashed with leeks) and a Guiness cake (I used Nigella Lawson’s recipe– the picture is of her cake, not mine, but mine looked just as nice). Tanya, who writes her own blog, wanted to know about St Patrick’s Day and food traditions, and this got me thinking a bit.
St Patrick himself is not especially associated with food, as far as I know. He was Welsh, actually, and was kidnapped by Irish raiders when he was a boy and taken to Ireland as a slave. Eventually escaping, he returned to Wales and was ordained as a priest and eventually a bishop, and finally went back to Ireland to evangelize the island. None of the miracles I know of concerning him (banishing all snakes from Ireland, speaking with Oisin the son of Fionn MacCumhall who had returned to Ireland after 300 years in Tír na nÓg) have anything to do with food. Still, hospitality, and especially the sharing of food and drink, is an integral part both of ancient Irish culture and of Irish culture today.
More important than food or drink, however, is craic, which means something like companionship or fun, but of a sort involving the telling of tales and the singing of songs rather more than running around hitting a ball with a stick or anything of that sort. And my Saint Patrick’s Day was full of good craic, beginning with my conversation with my landlady Joan, of the Marigold B and B. Joan has lived in the same house all her life, and it belonged to her parents and grandparents before her; she is a veritable compendium of all things Haligonian. At breakfast that morning, she was telling me, I can’t quite remember why, about her grandfather who was a stone-carver and whose workshop, in fact, carved the headstones for the 150 unclaimed victims of the Titanic who were buried in Halifax. This is craic not because it’s fun in any kind of obvious way, but because it’s deeply fascinating. Then at James’ house, after dinner and quite a lot of beer, there was another kind of craic, which began with listening to the Dropkick Murphys, but quickly evolved into singing along enthusiastically (James and his friend Mike’s rendition of the duet in “The Dirty Glass” will live long in my memory, and on Facebook). We sang “Follow me up to Carlow“, which memorializes the massacre of an English army at Glenmalure; it has wonderful bloody lyrics (“From Tassagart to Clonmore/There flows a stream of Saxon gore”) and encourages footstomping. We also roared out “Come out ye Black and Tans“:
Come out ye Black and Tans
Come out and fight me like a man
Show your wives how you won medals down in Flanders
And how the IRA made you run like hell away
From the green and lovely lanes of Killeshandra.
Sounds a bit Fenian, I know, but the best songs are the fighting songs. We finished the evening with “The Last of Barrett’s Privateers“, singing the line about Barrett being “smashed like a bowl of eggs” with particular gusto.
No parades. No green beer. No goddamn leprechauns. Good food, good drink, good craic, good friends. Possibly the best Saint Patrick’s Day ever.
The Travelling Medievalist will post again from Iceland…