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The drunken bawdiness that rains down on our parade

After decades of fighting highly offensive caricatures of the Irish as ape-like drunks, many people are all too eager to live up to the tiresome cliches on St Patrick's Day - and the boozy party is taking on an increasingly sectarian edge, says Suzanne Breen.

Published 16/03/2016

St Patrick’s Day carnival parade and concert in Belfast city centre last year
St Patrick’s Day carnival parade and concert in Belfast city centre last year
A well-behaved reveller enjoys the parade
Marching in the parade
All dressed up: A well-behaved reveller enjoys the parade

AS a child St Patrick's Day for me meant morning Mass, a green ribbon in my hair and a sprig of shamrock on my coat wrapped in tinfoil. In my late teens it started to become more fun. A few drinks in the pub, a bowl of stew beside a roaring fire, and a traditional music session were the order of the day.

It was a simple, classy affair. A million miles from the tacky, trashy event that we will see unfold in some parts of Belfast tomorrow.

St Patrick's Day is now just a green Twelfth. It's the one day in the year that I'm ashamed to be Irish. I've never warmed to the Twelfth of July. Not because I don't come from the unionist community, but because what I've witnessed time and time again, in urban areas anyway, isn't a cultural carnival but a crass, uncouth event.

Northern Ireland's Mardi Gras? Pull the other one. Yes, there are families with sandwiches and flasks of tea behaving in a dignified fashion. But for far too many on the streets the Twelfth is about drink, disorder and diatribe.

From the intoxicated skinhead bandsmen urinating in public to the overweight peroxide blondes sashaying onto the road clasping bottles of WKD and screaming profanities, it's a depressing day.

And then there are the tawdry stalls selling tasteless merchandise - including babies' bibs emblazoned with sectarian slogans.

But let no one on the other side of the political fence get on their high horse too swiftly, because loyalists don't have a monopoly on tat and tack.

Talk a look at the streets tomorrow and you'll see nationalists behaving badly. They'll cavort around town wearing flags as cloaks. In Belfast's Holyland area the drinking starts at 10 or 11 am. By the afternoon many people will be off their trolleys.

The streets will be awash with urine and vomit by the evening and A&E will be jam-packed at night-time. Of course, there will be plenty of families just having a good time at local community events. But, for too many people, March 17 has become first and foremost a drink fest.

We're not talking twinkly-eyed, charmingly inebriated. I mean steaming, off your head drunk. The green wigs, the huge leprechaun hats and the shamrock glasses that even Elton John would find over-ostentatious combine with alcohol to make an unsightly spectacle.

Let's face it, we just don't do fancy dress with any style in this part of the world. I've seen St Patricks hobbling along clutching their carry-outs with their croziers. And plenty of leprechauns can be found not under a rainbow, but lying in a gutter in their own sick.

The best St Patrick's Day I've ever spent has been in New York. Of course, there was a cheap side too with 'Kiss Me, I'm Irish' hats in abundance. But when the backdrop to proceedings is Fifth Avenue and the Empire State Building - not a dingy nightclub on Belfast's Golden Mile - you'll forgive a lot.

And Manhattan just wouldn't tolerate drunken eejits running amok. Anyone who has ever witnessed the NYPD in action knows that its makes the PSNI look like pussycats when dealing with anti-social behaviour.

I don't know any other people that let themselves down so much as the Irish on their national day. On the Fourth of July and Bastille Day, American and French citizens manage to enjoy themselves without embarrassing themselves. And the Chinese bring the streets alive with an amazing array of sights and sounds to welcome in their New Year.

Given the richness of Irish culture, it's shameful that we can't do better. Today's celebrations now reflect the 'Begorrah' and 'Bejaysus' image of ourselves we once denounced.

Swathes of green-clad goons run around our streets shouting "Ole, Ole, Ole" or worse. St Patrick's Day has become an occasion when, rather than challenging the crude stereotypes of Irish people, we reinforce them. The denigration of the Irish as ape-like drunks dates to the 19th century when British political cartoonists regularly resorted to such racist images. Generations of Irish people rightly railed against such caricatures.

Now we often seem content to fulfil some of these grotesque cliches ourselves.

For too long in the past those wishing to celebrate St Patrick's Day in Belfast were quarantined by a hostile State. Festivities were largely restricted to nationalist areas, and I remember the deadly dull Ancient Order of Hibernians' parade on the Falls Road.

Thankfully that has changed and there is now the civic space for people to celebrate their Irishness in the city centre, to be proud of where they are from and to salute their heritage.

But there is also an increasingly sectarian edge to the day. Just watch some chanting students with their bottles of Buckfast in the university area. Rather than fade away with the peace process, cheap in-yer-face Hibernianism is on the rise.

Ceasefire soldiery means that some young people who have never known any conflict - and certainly wouldn't be volunteering for combat if ours ever restarted - shout "Up the Ra!" as if they were cheering a football team.

Here was the sick, sectarian verse that some revellers were singing in the Holyland last St Patrick's Day: "I'd rather be a P*** than a Hun, I'd rather r*** my sister than a Hun." It was on a par with the obnoxious obscenities that occur at Eleventh Night bonfires.

I'm not suggesting we should turn the clock too far back regarding March 17, though. In 1927 the Irish Free State decreed that all pubs were to close for the national holiday. It wasn't until 1960 that the licensing laws were changed in order to accommodate foreign visitors.

Until then St Patrick's Day was as wretched as the rain that regularly drenched it. A return to the days of staid sobriety would be just as dispiriting as the boozed-up business now inflicted upon us.

I'm certainly not advocating that everybody spends our patron saint's day attending a church service, followed by a high-brow literary evening. But surely we can inject just a little more culture and class into our celebrations?

In this neck of the woods we have an unfortunate tendency to go from one extreme to another, so St Patrick's Day is an occasion where either killjoys or rowdy revellers rule the roost. I'd like to think that it was no longer a black or white choice. That there are fifty shades of grey - or more appropriately forty shades of green - in between.

Belfast Telegraph

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