Go Green or Go Home
March 17 is one day when environmentalists have to share green pride with the Irish, and all the wannabes who wish they were Irish. With St. Patrick's Day falling on Saturday this year, you can spend all day in green party mode -- to the sound of penny whistles and wee clackin' dance shoes -- and likely not have to work the next day.
"Sitting there with a pint in front of you, a big bowl of stew, a bit of fiddle music -- you can't beat it," says Paul Clerkin, communications director for the Irish Association of Manitoba.
Irish-born locals like Clerkin say the celebration named for the fifth-century saint has undergone striking changes in their homeland. It has evolved from a mainly religious occasion to an all-out drunk, and now to a more family-friendly cultural festival.
Many older Irish immigrants recall the national holiday as having a strong religious basis when they were young.
"The word holiday means 'holy day,'" says Dublin native Brendan Carruthers, 60. "It was the feast of St. Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland. Everybody always went to church on St. Patrick's Day."
The hymn Hail Glorious St. Patrick was sung. People watched small parades in the afternoon. There wasn't a particular meal associated with the holiday, and dressing in green wasn't a big deal.
One of the best parts, though, was getting a day off from the self-deprivation of Lent. On March 17, Carruthers says, you were allowed to enjoy whatever it was you'd sworn off for Lent -- usually candy or chocolate for kids, and often "the drink" or smoking for adults.
"It was a time when you got a dispensation from whatever you'd given up," he says.
Aidan O'Rourke, 58, also has strong memories of the Lent reprieve. "I'm not sure if the Church sanctioned it ... but you could indulge yourself in whatever it was you'd decided to deprive yourself of," says O'Rourke, who grew up in County Down and remembers wearing a piece of real shamrock in his lapel.
On the other hand, Clerkin, who is 36 and moved to Canada three years ago, says he's not familiar with the Lent moratorium at all, so it may have been a regional thing.
Clerkin was born in 1970 and raised Catholic in Monaghan, a few miles south of the border with Northern Ireland. He says the St. Paddy's parades of his childhood were highly commercial, with trucks or small floats plastered with advertising logos.
He remembers that the evening TV news would show a roundup of modest parades across Ireland, "and then they'd cut to Chicago, with the river (dyed) green, and this big parade and skyscrapers, and you'd go, 'Wow! It's bigger in America.'
"It changed during the '80s, when Ireland started to market itself as a tourist destination. Now they're trying to make it into a family event."
The government has banned corporate advertising on floats, and the premier parade in Dublin has grown into a grand, tourist-attracting spectacle that celebrates Irish music, dance and heritage. Electric tram lines are lowered so towering, American-style floats can negotiate the streets.
"They're trying to ramp it up as: 'Come to Ireland and see the Irish parade.' You can't have the Americans having a better St. Patrick's Day parade than the Irish! It has changed a lot in 30 years."
When Clerkin, a web designer, was in college and first joined the workforce, March 17 was marked by one thing.
"It was the most drunken thing you can imagine... unbelievable, excessive alcoholism," he says. "They're trying to scale that down, and take it out of the realm of the pubs."
Last year, the fact that Dublin has expanded the celebration into a three-day festival inspired the Irish Association of Manitoba to try the same thing at the Irish Club. It was a success, so the extended party is on again tonight, Friday night and all day Saturday at the club. The venue at 654 Erin St. accommodates more than 200 and is open to the public.
Clerkin says the club serves "the best Guinness in town -- and I've sampled them all," as well as a selection of Irish whisky and other beers.
There's no food menu tonight, and pub grub (sausages, chips) Friday. So Saturday lunch (11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.) is the time to attend if you want traditional food, including hearty Irish stew with soda bread, or ham with cabbage and potatoes.
For the local Irish community, it's like old home week.
"Everybody gathers at the Irish Club," says Carruthers. "People come out of the woodwork. Some people are getting on or have drifted away, but they pop up again on St. Patrick's Day. It's certainly a day to rekindle friendships."
If you don't have a drop of Irish blood you're just as welcome, especially considering the Irish gift for gab.
"We'll talk to nearly anybody about anything. We enjoy talking," says Clerkin.
But there'll be no hokey Irish-ness at the club.
"The whole Danny Boy thing has become a cliché," says Carruthers. "Most Irish people cringe when they hear it. The whole nonsense about green beer, dyeing the Chicago River green, people running around covered in shamrocks, is really an Americanization."
Clerkin agrees. "You don't mess with the beer. We have no green beer. We will never have any green beer."