What is it about St. Patrick’s Day?

ShamrockAs you must have gathered, I am not Irish.

One day I would love to visit Ireland–if for no other reason than to see the grass, which is alleged to be an extraordinary shade of green. For someone who was looking for greener pastures, how could I have missed the Emerald Isle?

Sadly, I know very little about the country, and since what I think I know is based on other people’s experiences, books, films, the internet, and so on, it is highly subjective and possibly suspect. When I think of Ireland, I picture a jolly farmer walking down a mossy hill towards me, cap sitting askew on his balding head, stick in hand, dog in tow. He interrupts his whistling just long enough to say “Top o’ the mornin’ to ya, miss!” as he makes his way to wherever he’s going.

Is that a true representation of Irish life? Is the grass that green? Are the sheep that woolly? Do Irishmen really break into song at any given moment? Those stereotypical images of Ireland will remain with me until reality, through my own observations, shatters or confirms them.

A common stereotype of the Irish is that they drink a lot. Which brings us to St. Patrick and the eponymous parades held in large cities and small towns across the United States at this time of the year. Parades are interesting. I don’t particularly like them–too many restrictions on where you can park, walk, stand, and pee is one reason–but I can see how people would enjoy a parade: the flags, the floats, the fanfare, all in good fun, a street fiesta for young and old, celebrating a holiday, an achievement, an ethnicity, whatever.

My oldest son is a graduate of UMass. So when I saw a headline in today’s paper about police in Amherst clashing with students at a pre-St. Patrick’s Day celebration called the Blarney Blowout, I was curious. In the article, it is reported that 55 people were arrested, not all them students, on “charges ranging from disorderly conduct to assaulting a police officer.” At least, I thought, no one got hurt.

And then I asked myself: What is it about college campuses and alcohol? I do not recall such rites of passage when I attended university in Europe. But that’s because I never lived on campus. There were no campuses at any of the universities in Switzerland: Students either lived at home, or rented a room somewhere in town. When, years later, I studied in England, I commuted daily.

“It’s just us trying to go outside and have a party, drink outside, have a good time,” a student is quoted as saying in the article. Okay, I’m all for a bit of outdoor fun after a long winter being cooped up in a dorm room, studying. But the Blarney Blowout?  No, that wasn’t the students’ idea. It was the local bars’ idea. Surprised?

Alcohol, when consumed moderately (yes, that is a matter of judgment), is enjoyable and legal in this country. When it is abused, it can produce all kinds of hellish outcomes–fatal car accidents, domestic violence, the destruction of entire families. I’ve seen it in session: that is the other side of drinking, after it has already caused damage.

I wonder: By getting drunk in honor of the patron saint of Ireland, aren’t we taking the saint’s name in vain?

I wish you all a safe St. Patrick’s Day!


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