Did you wear something green for St. Patrick’s Day? In our family, if you don’t, you’ll receive a pinch for your carelessness. My great grandmother enforced this custom with great glee. Needless to say, I grew up considering myself Irish. Then I went to Ireland and in the charming town of Limerick learned otherwise.
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I’d wandered into a small public square where a handful of older men were having a fine and hearty conversation. Dressed in tattered tweed coats and caps, they were passing around a large bottle of Guinness. What a photo they would make! So I walked over and asked if I could take their picture.
“Well, now are ya Irish?” one of them grinned.
And in that moment, I realized despite boasting about being Irish, I was thoroughly American. My heritage formed from all kinds of cultures blended into one big Mulligan stew.
“No,” I admitted.
“Ahh.” They slumped in disappointment.
“But my great grandmother was.”
That brightened them right up and the one with the bottle held it up in toast. “Well, God bless her now!” They laughed as I snapped a couple shots.
That kind of willingness to celebrate the silver linings in a person’s imperfect bloodlines is the reason why St. Patrick’s Day is so popular. Everyone is Irish for a day and the Irish don’t mind a’tall. Lest you attribute this to alcohol, keep in mind festivities begin from a place of gaiety and acceptance without the emotional baggage of say, New Year’s Eve. While overindulgence is never attractive, the warmth derived from being welcomed into a group can be intoxicating in its own right. We love them for it.
Such was the atmosphere of the last St. Pat’s Parade I attended. Sure now, there were all makes of floats with step dancers and marching pipe bands and even a gaggle of Irish Wolf Hounds and Irish Setters sauntering along in and out of formation. But what struck me was the crowd circulating on the sidelines. At first, I didn’t notice anything beyond all the plastic green hats and giant shamrocks. Then I noticed how almost universally everyone was smiling. What a welcome sight that was! But then beyond the green, behind the smiles, I saw diversity. Humans of every age and hue. Everyone just having fun; all cares and anger set aside. It’s okay—even healthy—to occasionally turn away from serious issues lest one becomes a bore. Life requires more than travail.
Here is the best reason for parades: Despite the work involved for organizers and the trouble caused by detours, parades gloriously flaunt those overarching things we value. They celebrate achievement and aspiration. Parades remind us that we are part of something grand whether we walk within or watch from the curb. Of course parades can also portray a dark side of humanity, but relatively few people bother with them. It’s the good we prize.
Years ago, the local Columbus Day Parade in October was one of the largest in the U.S. Italian-Americans showed off their heritage and boasted of their contributions to a country that had once vilified their immigrant parents. But then certain groups claimed the explorer’s name symbolized all the atrocities wreaked on native populations by late-comers to the continent. The day became a struggle between people proud to bring their flavors to the Melting Pot and those who felt consumed by it.
Both sides remained intractable, hostile to mediation. The last few parades devolved into rolling protests. Like ants at a picnic, hellion anarchists who travel the country looking for such events showed up to enflame the hate. The greater community splintered. The state declared Cabrini Day instead, but it has not filled the void of a deceased celebration.
Perhaps enough time has passed so tempers have cooled, wounds have healed, feelings have evolved that another parade could arise which celebrates all human potential. One which reminds us no matter what part of the stew we comprise, we are all imperishably connected in a grand scheme that reaches beyond past injustice.
Judy Allison has enjoyed a long and varied career in media and has written for newspapers, magazines, cable TV, government entities and elected officials. She and her dog Torrey the Wonder-Bouvier wander through many neighborhoods in the region.
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