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.
I figured things would be nicer in the country. And they were. For about a week.
County Down, where my father's parents were born, is a heavily Protestant county, so the tinderbox mentality of border towns like Londonderry or the rougher sections of Belfast was noticeably absent. Until the Marching Season began. Imagine the Fourth of July, Cinco de Mayo and an NBA championship soiree in Chicago combined into one holiday, and you've got the 12th of July in Northern Ireland. The holiday commemorates the victory of the Protestant King William III (William of Orange) over the Catholic former king, James II, in 1690. But, in reality, it's an excuse for Ulster Protestants to band together and give a collective middle finger to Catholics.
The holiday began as an Independence Day of sorts, with midnight bonfires and drums. But it soon turned ugly. Bands of juiced-up youths roamed the streets, smashing the windows of Catholic homes. Over the next couple of weeks, they would occasionally harass Catholic schoolmates they didn't like. The celebration lasted three days and is the closest I've ever felt to the epicenter of the type of unrestrained human passion that explodes to the surface in riots and massive protests. County Down is a far cry from Baghdad and Belgrade, but I can't help but feel there's a connection somewhere.
The human separation of Ireland's people was hit home by Jimmie Rice. Jimmie was the bricklayer on the small construction crew that I worked with to fund my return trip to California. He was the kind of colorful, salty-earthed character that Eugene O'Neill could have created. Unquestionably, he is the most foul-mouthed person I have ever known. He was also fascinating to listen to. I used to make up excuses so I could work within hearing of this fountain of obscenity. He was an inveterate storyteller and singer, croaky voice and all. His perception of America was just as fascinating, having been filtered through a rather limited media lens. Every hour or so, his nonstop patter or singing would be punctuated by a similar phrase, directed at me: What about that Bruce Springsteen? What about that Madonna? What about that Charlie Manson? I gave my 2 cents, and he'd continue slapping mortar on bricks and cursing under his breath about whatever emotion, joyful or otherwise, was coursing through him at the moment.
Jimmie joked with the other guys in the crew, swapped tales with them. But something strange happened in the two or three breaks we received during our six-hour shift. Everyone would pile inside the air-conditioned trailer where we'd eat our sack lunches and generally bullshit the break away. Not Jimmie. He'd sit outside. I figured it was because a cigarette was never too far from his profane lips. Over time, I realized the truth: he was Catholic. It was never said or implied, but there it was. And the most sobering thought I had was that I think he wanted to be outside as much as the guys inside wanted him to be outside.
It's that ability to live in complete segregation amid an apparently integrated society that struck me the most about my family and the other Irish people I met. Linked to that is a startling ability to minimize the costs. When my Irish relations learned I was a reporter back home, they made a point of saying, "Well, you go back there and tell them it's not as bad as they say it is." And the next day, I'd be driving to the Giant's Causeway and see a marker on the side of the road commemorating the spot where a Protestant paramilitary group had shot someone. Or a cousin would point to a distant hill and say that's where the detonator was that had triggered an explosion that had killed five members of a military convoy. Within 10 miles of the town of Killyleagh, there were five places commemorating such brutality.
No, it's not that bad. It's worse.
No one among my Irish relations would ever admit to disliking a Catholic, but in moments of candor-usually when they were tight-they'd unleash deep-rooted animosity. In a moment of unvarnished hate, my otherwise warm-hearted 60-year-old cousin warned me and my girlfriend not to travel to the Republic of Ireland-"a filthy cesspool of criminality," he called it.
It has been eight years since my trip, and Northern Ireland continues to make daily headlines. The latest buzz is the IRA is refusing to surrender its weapons as part of the unification vote approved by a majority of voters in Northern Ireland last year that will finally give the region some form of limited self-rule. The vote is about the most hopeful news in Northern Ireland over the past 30 years. But I still have a very hard time believing it will ever be fully enacted. In a country where violence and animosity are as much a part of the land as its soil and trees, it's difficult to truly believe something as temporal as a vote can really change much. From Northern Ireland to Kosovo, the chain of history is one tightly coiled motherfucker.
Needless to say, when Saint Patrick's Day has rolled around every March 17 after my return from Ireland, I've had torn feelings. I like to get tight with the best of them, but now there's a tinge of melancholy in the celebration. It's a distant relation to the pain no doubt expressed by the red-haired man at the beginning of this story. In Irish parts of Great Britain, Saint Patrick's Day, like the 12th of July for the Prostestants, is as much political symbol as day of celebration. Think of it as a painful bit of sugar to make the medicine of colonialism go down.
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While I don't advocate everyone sitting around and weeping crocodile tears about the great potato famine on Saint Patrick's Day, I do wish our gleeful embracing of Irish drink and partying was tempered ever so slightly by a realization of the complex, confusing reality of life in Ireland.
That's why I was so struck by the Saint Patrick's Day party I attended two years ago at the home of the Moynahan family in Buena Park. The Moynahans, a deliriously talented Irish clan, throw annual Saint Patrick's Day shebangs that have grown to near-legendary status. There's Irish food in the kitchen, Irish music played by live performers, and Irish stories, tales and lies swapped in the living room. It was, as the Irish say, good "crack."
But late in the evening, a man rose to his feet a bit unsteadily. Speaking with a brogue as thick as potato soup, he asked for everyone's attention. The living room settled into a expectant hush. He was an Irish Catholic priest visiting the States. He spoke a few words about the gathering and then asked for a moment of silence to remember all those, Protestant and Catholic, who have died in the Troubles.
It was a sobering moment, but a reminder that what's truly important about Saint Patrick's Day isn't shit-faced revelry, but rather the celebration of a people-perhaps all people-who are gloriously flawed and terribly beautiful. Soon enough, the thirstier among us went back to getting shit-faced, and celebration descended on us like a panic. Suddenly, there seemed good reason to dance.