A few years ago I had a chance to tour the Emerald Isle with the AOH (Ancient Order of Hibernians or, as my sister and I called them, the Order of Ancient Hibernians). We joined the Bloody Sunday March in Derry, toured Kilmainham Gaol, walked among the graves at Glasnevin. We were supplied with expert guides and a fantastic driver, Paddy (of course). The guides would give us the “official” history of the sites we visited and later we’d ask the perpetually disgusted Paddy for the real story.
“The guide said that the Irish wear blue on St. Patrick’s Day, Paddy,” we reported one evening. “Is it true?”
“Well, the Irish that know what they’re doing, yes. But there are about as many Irish who know what they’re doing as Americans, and judging by the two of you, that’s not too many. It was the Protestants who got everyone started on the green. And the young people say, ‘Catholic, Protestant, what’s the difference? We’re all Irish.’ And Daniel O’Connell is turnin’ over in his grave.”
Bemused ourselves (we’re not so old after all), we played to his sympathies. “And just how does a proper Irish Catholic celebrate St. Paddy’s Day?”
“You see that bit of snow up there?” Paddy asked, pointing to an impressive hulk of land. “That’s Croagh Patrick, the mountain of St. Patrick. Those who are devoted to him will climb that hill as a pilgrimage. They go shirtless.”
At our raised brows, he explained (as though to imbeciles), “The men go shirtless, not the women. The ones who are really devoted to St. Patrick will climb barefoot. And the serious ones will climb … on … their … knees.”
“So, they don’t paint their faces green and go pub crawling?” (At this point, we’d placed a side bet as to whether we could actually induce apoplexy.)
Paddy scrunched his face into a profound scowl of derision. “Paint what? Go to the where? No, you go to Mass! It’s a saint’s feast day, what’s wrong with ye? And the pubs used to always be closed by law, till the tourists demanded a chance to make fools of themselves. In all me days, I never…”
I paid my sister the five euros she’d earned as Paddy muttered incoherently, satisfied that we’d heard the real story of Ireland’s most famous saint.
Photo courtesy of criminalatt, freedigitalphotos.net.