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How to be Irish on St Patrick’s Day


I remember collecting shamrock in a field a few days before Patrick’s Day in my early youth.

I would shout to my father ‘I found some, a massive bunch’. He would come over to my part of the ditch and wearily respond ‘That’s clover, you eejit. Throw it away.

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I’ll tell you again, for the thousand time, clover has bigger leaves with white spots on them’.

He would sigh and say ‘get on with the search for the sacred plant’.

On those rare occasions on which I found real shamrock, I wasn’t allowed to wear it.

Instead, I had to wear a large green rosette with gold paper harps while the adults pinned a muck-covered half-dead bunch of leaves to their Sunday best. Some of the scrawniest had white spots, which made me wonder if my father was the botanical authority he claimed to be.

Some enterprising person has since farmed shamrock on a commercial scale, which has ruined the potential for familial closeness in the hunt through our indigenous flora.

Back in school the parish priest would turn up for his annual inspection of our theological orthodoxy.

Every year he asked the class if we knew why shamrock was the symbol of Patrick’s Day.

We collectively claimed ignorance so that we could have a quiet 20 minutes daydreaming while he explained the Blessed Trinity to us, fantasising that an extremely large snake might slide into class and strangle him.

On the morning of Patrick’s Day, we went to Irish mass at half 10. We had learned the Irish phonetically over the previous three weeks in school, and sang the hymns as if Simon Cowell was looking on critically at the back of the church.

Mass was followed by the parade. The parade was two trailers pulled by tractors through the main street. On the first trailer would be a clutch of Irish dancers clinging to each other in terror of falling head-first into the street.

Their fall would not have been cushioned much by the few spectators.

The second trailer usually transported a traditional music group who, having abandoned their musical instruments due to hypothermically paralysed fingers, clung to a sign advertising powdered milk.

One year my aunt came from London for the day, having been overwhelmed by patriotism, and we stood together in the rain and watched the trailers go by supplemented by three lorries, one of which was making its regular deliveries.

Afterwards, we walked the four-and-a-half miles in the rain behind the small band of extremely retired old IRA men to the grave of Seán Tracey in Kilfeacle which is the Hill where St Patrick lost a tooth.

He lost a lot of teeth around Ireland which is evidence of either poor oral hygiene or a penchant for fist-fighting.  Shots were fired, speeches were delivered, and we walked home. My aunt said ‘Lord Jesus.

That’s the last time I am doing that’. The following year she said it again.

Following a 21 year absence, last year I persuaded my now very elderly aunt to return, having convinced her that Paddy’s Day has really changed and has become an actual festival.

At the Dublin Parade she was amazed by the majorettes from America, the giant Macnas street puppets from Galway, the elaborate floats where you can’t even see the wheels underneath, and the hundreds of competing marching bands from all over the world.

There was even a panel of judges. I made her stand on top of a ladder to get the best view, and when she fell five still-sober green-bearded leprechauns carried her to the waiting ambulance. She has promised to come back this year.


David Slattery has a doctorate in Social Anthropology from St Andrew’s University in Scotland. Originally from Tipperary but not having any talent for hurling he fled to University College Cork where he studied civil engineering before transferring to philosophy.  This was the great depression of the 1980s so it was study or emigrate, and his mammy wanted him to stay in Ireland.  He stayed at UCC to research a Masters in History of Science. He told people that he was studying accounting because he couldn’t deal with conversations that started with: “Philosophy? I’ll tell you my philosophy of life…” His book How To Be Irish, published by Orpen Press, is a hilarious guide through the rules of being Irish.



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