Ire Land

Saint Patrick's Day among the Irish

Walk into an Irish pub on Saint Patrick's Day, and you expect Irish beer, Irish music, Irish hospitality. You don't expect some red-haired son of Eire sporting a pint of Guinness and a wicked scowl carved across his face stumbling up to your friend and hissing: "Get out of here, nigger."

The "nigger" in question was actually an American of Spanish descent, something our newfound Gaelic brother could probably have guessed 13 pints ago. But his point, while not clever, was certainly clear: if you weren't Irish, or didn't at the very least have white skin, you weren't welcome in this pub on this day.

The pub was located in an area of London called Kilburn, which, according to our less-than-trusty student travel guide, was the most Irish part of the city. We figured it would be perfect for a rousing Saint Paddy's Day celebration. We were wrong.

What we didn't realize is that Saint Patrick's Day celebrations are aberrations in England. Nor did we realize that Kilburn in the early '90s was politically charged, a working-class, depressed area populated by angry and frustrated Irish migrants who had fled the even-more-depressed Republic of Ireland to find work. So on this Saint Patrick's Day, we found anti-royal graffiti and broken bottles in the street outnumbered happy revelers. Thoughts of eating authentic corned beef and cabbage -the kind my mom made every March 17 back in California-were banished. We wound up eating greasy takeout pizza after beating a hasty retreat from the aforementioned pub.

That experience, coupled with living for two months in the small Northern Ireland town of my grandparents' birth, forever altered my view of Saint Patrick's Day. More important, it changed my perspective on that rather complex condition, the Irish experience. Before my journey, I was anti-English and pro self-determination. I believed Northern Ireland (the six-county region in Ireland also known as Ulster, the only part of Ireland that is part of the United Kingdom) should be run by the Irish, Catholic as well as Protestant. The British should get out and stay the hell out.

I left Northern Ireland with politics intact. Less solid was my hope that the Irish people will ever live in anything other than the most fragile of peaces. Elephants may never forget. But the Irish, at least the ones I met, are unable to forgive.

I wasn't a complete idiot before my trip. I knew the history of the region-more than 3,000 have been killed in sectarian violence since 1968 alone-and the long, brutally unfair legacy of English colonialism. But there was a part of me that still envisioned the Irish people as something out of Van Morrison's Astral Weeks, or as happy-go-lucky leprechauns, or as gentle freaks of nature able to drink an ocean of spirits and be ready to dance a jig and belt out a folk song at the drop of a shamrock. I believed that Irish was Irish and if the British military were removed from their presence, these jovial, friendly people could surely patch up their differences.

I was much less certain after my journey. The Irish ranked among the friendliest and kindest people I met in Europe. But they were also among the most bitter and hateful, emotions that spring from the sense of sadness that comes from living in a gorgeous, mystical country-it's no surprise it produced the most lyrical, spiritual writers in the English language-ravaged by a violence and a shared history that has permeated the daily stuff of their lives. A genuinely schizophrenic people.

My first hint of the schism came a short time after disembarking from the ferry in Belfast. I had heard Belfast was a city under a kind of martial law. Not this residential neighborhood. Our bed and breakfast was located on a post-card-perfect tree-lined street. We took a walk down what passed as the main street, a winding two-lane road flanked by stately, scenic brick buildings. Everything was calm, sedate. Suddenly, we could hear a faint dull drone somewhere behind us. Probably a plane in the distance or a bus lumbering up the street, I thought. The drone grew into a rumble and finally a roar, and it felt as if the ground were shaking beneath my feet. Jesus, I thought, a friggin' earthquake in Ireland?

I then turned to the right and found myself staring into the barrel of a gun manned by a young man in military fatigues. He was sitting in the turret of a massive olive-colored armored transport. I guess it was a tank, but I never knew they could move that fast. As I watched the vehicle rumble past me and down the road, I saw the young man-who, military issue aside, didn't look old enough to shave-change his position every 10 seconds or so. I realized then that he wasn't aiming at me; that was his drill. I just happened to be in the direct line of fire.

The closer we came to the center of town, the scarier it got. Rooftop snipers. Boarded windows. Sandbagged sentry stations, protected by barbed wire and twisted sheets of metal designed to prevent a car from slamming into the Darth Vader-type soldiers manned inside who are wearing protective clothing and gear. Most unnerving is that life-real mundane stuff-proceeded amid the abandoned buildings and military occupation. People shopped, ate and talked to one another in the street. But there was a tightness to the people's faces, a reluctance to make eye contact or small talk with strangers. Belfast was the most frightened, coldest city I had ever seen.

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