Saints and snakes, corned beef and beer

The confusing message of St. Patrick’s Day

By Bill Colvard -

Saint Patrick and I have a complicated history.

This year, for the first time in many years, I have plans for the holiday. Beulah Methodist Church’s community meal of traditional Irish corned beef and cabbage on Saturday sounds too good to resist. Some of the ladies do the real deal and go the whole nine yards spending days brining corned beef.

My sister was married to a man of Irish extraction for a few minutes and though the marriage was brief, the courtship was long enough for her to learn the art of corned beef and cabbage. I haven’t had any since she died five years ago. It’s one of the many things I miss about her.

So for me, St. Patrick’s Day is a day about a specific food, like Thanksgiving. It was not always thus.

When I was a kid, the feast day of St. Patrick was this random day of the year that, for reasons that were never made clear to my childhood self, unmerciful pinching ensued if any child failed to wear green on that particular day. St. Patrick’s Day was just this odd day whose only purpose was to celebrate the institutional bullying of anyone who deviated from societal norms.

As I got a little older and learned that St. Patrick was a saint of the Roman Catholic Church, it became even more peculiar that the hooligans of my Wilkes County elementary school were celebrating his feast day with such violent zest, seeing that not a single one of us, as far as I knew, was of the Catholic faith. And yet, there we were, pinching up a storm and shielding ourselves in green to ward off bruises.

Later still, I learned that St. Patrick had achieved his fame by driving the snakes out of Ireland. Which was great for the people of Ireland but since old St. Paddy had not done jack-squat to drive the snakes out of my homeland, I didn’t think I owed him anything. Until I could pick blackberries in a weed patch unencumbered by terrorization by copperheads or swim in the creek without being chased by water moccasins, I saw no reason to revere St. Patrick in the slightest.

Upon moving as a young adult to New York, where there is a sizable Irish Catholic population, I learned the real truth about St. Patrick’s Day. It’s a drinking holiday, a day for people to overindulge in the consumption of alcohol. And not just folks who normally keep their gullet well lubricated with demon rum.

Saint Patrick’s Day was a time for people of all stripes to celebrate their Irish heritage, real or imagined. And like New Year’s Eve, it was a day for amateurs at the sport of boozing to elevate themselves for the day to professional status and start knocking ‘em back with the big boys. Usually with disastrous results.

Which led me to learn a second sartorial rule for March 17. In addition to wearing green, it was best to leave one’s good shoes at home. Because it never failed that at some point in the day, some jerk would puke on your shoes. On a day when green beer ran in the gutters, much of which had already been rejected by some dilettante alcoholic’s digestive system, getting one’s shoes sprayed with vomit while strolling down the street was far too usual an occurrence.

Maybe it wasn’t that way for everyone, but for several years, I worked on the block of 57th Street which was not only two blocks from 5th Avenue where the parade took place but also boasted Tommy Makem’s Irish Pavilion, where the famous Irish folksinger Tommy Makem held court. So needless to say, we got more than our share of boozy pedestrians.

One good thing about the alcohol-centric nature of those Saint Patrick’s Days was pinching no longer played a role. It was considered bad form not to wear green but if you forgot, a fuzzy green leprechaun hat could always be picked up from a street vendor for a couple of bucks on the way to work.

And besides, with merrymakers keeping at least one hand occupied with a beverage, there were only half as many hands to do the pinching.

I imagine the derrieres of pretty lassies had a much different experience, and on a day where alcohol plays such a key role, the definition of “pretty” was probably rather broad.

Now that I’m back in North Carolina, the only St. Paddy’s festivities I know of locally are a church lunch and a charity fundraiser. I imagine the church lunch will follow local custom and be sans alcohol and the fundraiser will be much more respectable than the sodden Bacchanalia of Tommy Makem’s Irish Pavilion. St. Paddy’s Day in northwest North Carolina is a rather staid affair. If you’re lucky, you’ll score some corned beef and cabbage, as I plan to do.

Now that I’m older and hopefully wiser, I think I’ve figured out the lack of hoopla.

It’s the snakes. They are far too plentiful in these parts for St. Patrick to hold any real sway. Manhattan, on the other hand, where St. Patrick’s Day is a day for Dionysian feasting — and by Dionysian, I mean feasting of the liquid variety — is like Ireland, an island without snakes. And though I doubt anyone would argue that the snakes were driven from the isle of Manhattan by a mythical saint rather than over-development, the fact remains it is an island without snakes.

At least, snakes of the reptilian variety.
The confusing message of St. Patrick’s Day

By Bill Colvard

Reach Bill Colvard at 336-415-4699 or celebrate St. Patrick’s Day with him over corned beef and cabbage at Beulah United Methodist Church on Saturday from 11-1.

Reach Bill Colvard at 336-415-4699 or celebrate St. Patrick’s Day with him over corned beef and cabbage at Beulah United Methodist Church on Saturday from 11-1.

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