03/19/2012 05:15 pm ET Updated May 19, 2012

Sober St. Patrick's: Drunken Past, Sparkling Future

The Big Question: Can St. Patrick's Day be rebranded?

I sat down with Malachy McCourt, author, actor, and arguably the godfather of the Irish American at this point, to hash out the preconceptions and misconceptions of the Irish Big Day Out. As a supporter of Sober St. Patrick's Day -- a fresh approach to celebrating the day, he has quite a bit to say about the Irish American holiday.

I remember Malachy McCourt behind the bar on the daytime drama Ryan's Hope, where every year Helen Gallagher as matriarch Maeve Ryan would giver her mellifluous rendition of Danny Boy on March 17.

(Confession: I was in the cast of that show for some years and it always made me grouchy that I couldn't participate in the St. Patrick's Day episodes since, even though I was one of a handful in the cast with authentically Irish heritage, I played eurotrash!)

But Malachy McCourt doesn't drink any more and he set about taking the blarney out of "Danny Boy" and a few other St. Patrick's Day myths for me.

Busting Danny Boy
"It's not even Irish, that song!" he laughed. "It is a very old melody," he ceded, "about 400 years old, but it was written by an Englishman in 1910 who hadn't had a boy leave home... Although that happened to him later -- maybe he was prescient."

Busting St. Patrick
"You know St. Patrick wasn't Irish, right?" I knew. "He was an invader, the son of a patrician Roman [Roman-Briton]!" Malachy says emphatically. "I don't know what sin he committed, but he did decide to make reparation [once in Ireland]."

Malachy doesn't believe there were any snakes there to begin with, either. "They're all over here, and in politics." You must remember that Malachy, a prolific author in his own right, and his brother, the late Frank McCourt, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Angela's Ashes, were well known for the show, "A Couple of Blackguards Sitting Around Talking". That spirit of insouciance, liberally laced with an Irish brogue, still infuses Malachy's speech.

He also remembers St. Patrick's day from his boyhood in Limerick as a very sober affair. "You were rousted out of your bed early, made to go to Mass; you still had to go to school or work. It wasn't a holiday!" he grumbles.

"You can't blame the Americans for trying to liven it up."

But he takes issue with the military focus of the parades. "All the schools in uniform -- and carrying guns! This is for a Saint! And honoring the prince of peace." Plus, he points out that it's a Catholic holy day, but having morphed into a celebration of Irish heritage, it disenfranchises "all the Irish who are Protestants!"

The Drink, the Drink -- Where does that reputation come from?
I had to ask. How did the Irish get the reputation for being such heavy drinkers? Even my own father is derisive about it, and he's where my Irish heritage comes from. Malachy McCourt has a theory (I knew he would):

It goes way back to the Laws of Hospitality. People invited strangers into their home and gave them the best that they had. But during the famine, they had nothing. Less than nothing. So they couldn't invite anyone in. Anyway, there could be dead children inside, being eaten by rats because they couldn't afford to bury them.


"But you could come out, and offer them a drink." Wait, if they had nothing, how could they afford alcohol?

Oh you could make alcohol out of anything: dandelion roots, tree bark, sweaty socks...

Yum, a sweaty sock cocktail. That's enough to induce sobriety right there.

"You'll notice there was no talk of Irish heavy drinking before 1845," Malachy points out, with an arched eyebrow.

He directed me to Bill Reilly, the man responsible for the Sober St. Patrick's Day initiative. Two events ignited the idea, Reilly told me:

  • I almost lost a family member to the addiction; now, seven years later, he's sober and a hero in my life. But I saw how addiction affects the entire family.
  • At a St. Patrick's Day parade, he saw a youth wearing a T-shirt: St. Patrick's Day today, Hung over tomorrow.

That was it.

Reilly went to the National Council on Alcoholism and Caron International to wrest the holiday from the grip of alcohol. "With 22 million American affected with alcoholism or addiction, and four or five times that when you include the families affected," he explained, it was time to take back the holiday for the celebration of the Irish.

But applying the principle of never leaving a vacuum, what is the best way to celebrate the day?

"A parade!" Malachy said, but of a different stripe.

There's nothing Irish in that parade, except maybe the flag. It's an imitation of British royalty. Floats! decorated for the counties perhaps, and Irish writers like Swift, Wilde, Keats, O'Casey, Shaw, and James Joyce. Stop along the way and read [a passage], stop and sing, stop and dance. There's Puerto Rican Day Parade, why can't this be the Irish Day Parade?"

Pauline Turley, Vice Chair of the Irish Arts Center agrees. She mentions with disappointment in her voice the Urban Outfitters baseball cap -- Irish Yoga, the downward upchuck --"picturing an Irishman throwing up: To counter that, she says:

"We have Book Day every year -- four Nobel prizes for literature in the last century is something to be proud of! We have an open house every year, without alcohol -- it's always packed. Celebrate the culture of music and dance and poems and plays - it's what we're known for the world over. We just had an event at Symphony Space that celebrated Irish music's influence on Celtic Appalachia and country music in general.

We're putting out best foot forward -- and if that's a jig, so much the better.

Bill Reilly says: "Our event! At Sober St. Patrick's, we'll have world-class musicians, world-class dancers and singers, comedians. It's a rip-roaring Irish party."

For those in recovery, actor/producer Gary Kimble, who'll be performing in a "moving and hilarious" scene from "Pass It On... An Evening with Bill W. & Dr. Bob" says:

Those of us in recovery from alcoholism are not a glum lot -- we've just learned how to have fun without booze... [this is] a great service -- a fantastic sober party to show others how to swing from the chandelier and celebrate St. Patrick's Day without liquor.

I'll drink to that, with some sparkling seltzer spiked with Rose's lime juice. Think of the calories I'll save!

Gerit Quealy writes on Style & Substance at NBC's