THE BLOG

Who's Paddy?

03/10/2014 02:50 pm ET | Updated May 10, 2014
John Madden via Getty Images

The days leading up to Paddy's Day drive me mad. Green rules New York. Not the green of the Irish countryside mind, but a cheap charade of color pretending to be green. Leprechaun hats, red curly beards and restaurants trumpeting corned beef and cabbage leave me wondering: What in God's name are they celebrating?

Why make such a fuss about someone called Paddy? Why want to look like a Leprechaun when the Irish themselves dispel that myth? Why ballyhoo an American dish, when the Irish prefer ham and cabbage?

Before Paddy joined the line, the St. Patrick's Day parade celebrated Patrick, who wasn't even Irish. Yet, he is the patron saint of Ireland and the Irish adore him. Then "saint" was given the axe. And Patrick became Paddy, the mysterious someone honored by a massive parade up Fifth Avenue.

"Happy Paddy's Day," as common a greeting as Merry Christmas, is followed by "What are you doing for Paddy's Day?" Doesn't anyone know that Paddy was once a derogatory name for Irish men? Does anyone care?

What gets my goat is when strangers single me out, point and screech: "You're Irish!" then say: "Top o' th' mornin," in a phony Irish accent, confident that their attempt to "talk" Irish will please me. It doesn't.

For the past few days here in Ireland, I've been asking friends and shopkeepers what they think of 'Paddy" in regards to the parade. With the exception of my butcher, Paddy, who thinks it's swell that a parade is named after him, no one likes it. Patrick is still a popular name for boys. One son is always given the name, even as the middle one.

Yet, why does Paddy as used by Americans visioning a parade, bother me so? Popular myth portrays the Irish as a fun loving, hard drinking lot without a care in the world. But I know differently. Living here, I see modern Ireland coping with its past -- and it's not easy.

I wonder if America has ever known what to do with the Irish. I'm old enough to remember how Kennedy's red hair and Catholicism made him suspect (of what? Shenanigans, mass in the white house?) when he ran for the presidency.

Yet, as far back as the 19th Century, newspaper cartoons had the Irish arriving fresh off the boat with little else but the clothes on their back, thick brogue-boots, bowler hat, smile on their face and a sprig of shamrock pinned to their tweed jacket.

Movies like The Quiet Man contributed to this naïf myth. Oh how the Irish countryside shimmers in summer light with nary a cloud in the sky, as hero, John Wayne drags Maureen O'Hara over the fields, readying her up to be the wife, while all the neighbors applaud. I tell you today's Irish woman would be dragging the man over the fields!

Yet the The Quiet Man still holds power. The longing for home is universal. Yet, I do wince at that ending. It still holds a strong stereotype. Violence, but all in good fun, has plagued the Irish for years.

And today there's alcohol. Paddy's Day is a designated "booze-up" that begins the weekend before the 17th and runs through 'til the vomit in the gutters turns green.

My parents were Irish emigrants. When I was a child, every St. Patrick's Day my mother and I would take the BMT in from Astoria and get off at Fifth Avenue and 60th Street. This was because she thought the East Side was more genteel than down town.

No matter what the weather, she and I would station our selves near The Plaza Hotel waiting for the Emerald Pipers with their bagpipes, the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick with their silk sashes, two gigantic Irish Wolfhounds and the cops -- all so dapper -- sporting shamrock boutonnières.

Down the way on the steps of "the Cathedral", Cardinal Spellman would be greeting dignitaries who my mother felt akin to, because she was now living in New York.

As marching band after marching band, and high school after high school, paraded by us (all the young girls' knees red from the cold) we patiently waited and waited for what I knew to be important to my mother.

A good three hours into the proceedings, the patriotic banner: "England Get Out of Ireland" appeared to great applause. I had no idea what it meant. My Mother didn't explain it either. Bringing up the rear were organizations from Ireland's twenty-six counties holding banners announcing Galway, Wexford, Kildare, Donegal and so on.

"Where's Kerry?" she'd ask, as we craned our necks downtown. When Kerry finally appeared, my Mother would look to see if she knew anybody. She didn't. And as the Kerry men marched uptown, we left, confident that next year she'd recognize someone as Irish as us.

My memory resides in the veil of fond remembrance. Yet this I do know. Once the St. Patrick's Day parade was marched in by the Irish and watched by the Irish. It was not a booze-up. It was not called Paddy's Day. And people did have fun.

Isn't it time for Paddy's Day to become St. Patrick's Day -- a celebration of all good things Irish from history to theatre to food to literature and beyond. Fie on Paddy, whoever he is! Let's hear it for St. Patrick, the Roman slave who became Irish, because after all, Ireland is an accommodating nation.