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Here’s why the Irish are so important, and what Saint Patrick’s Day is all about 

Longing for home is part of the human condition.


Just to be clear, it's Paddy, not Patty. In the nine years I have lived in Halifax, I have tried–and failed–to vanquish St. Patty. I telephone grocery stores about clover masquerading as shamrock. I stalk Twitter like a banshee, howling at hapless Haligonians. I explain to everyone in a leprechaun hat that they actually wore red coats. I wear blue for St. Patrick.

I marvel at the fact that Halifax chooses to wear hallucinatory green sweaters and queue in March weather for a drink. At some point I start muttering "plastic Paddy" at puking students. Eventually, I watch the Muppets sing "Danny Boy" and take back my sanity.

You have your ways of celebrating my national day. The whys are more important anyway.

Why do we all go drinking on Paddy's Day? For reasons lost in time, it falls on March 17, which means it lands somewhere in the middle of Lent. Lent is a time when Catholics give up things, in order to prepare spiritually for Easter. Irish people have traditionally observed Lent by giving up alcohol. Forty days without a pint is a long time. St. Patrick's Day, being a holiday, is a day off Lent. So Irish people go drinking.

Why do you lot drink on St. Patrick's Day? It's cold, the patios are still in storage, it's not a holiday. Yeah, maybe it's because your great-grandmother on your father's side was from Ireland. I suspect it's been a long winter and exams are coming up or you just need a bit of a blow out. As we say in Ireland, fair play to ye, whatever floats your boat.

Whatever the reason, isn't it marvelous all the same that a small inconsequential island on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean can take over the world so completely for one day? We tell ourselves it's our wit, our language, our literature, our history, our music, our riverdancers. We worry it's Bono. But what's it really about?

That small island was cleared out a dozen times. Each time its people streamed away, east, west and south. Most notable was the generation that crawled off crowded coffin ships, starving, ridden with lice and typhus. They found their feet eventually, survived and became legendary. Each generation after that, from Sydney to Shanghai, from Bay Street to Mountain View, sings their song. The rest of the world nods and hums along, because the crush of colonialism and the juxtaposition of longing for home and making a new life are universal feelings.

Here's a thing. Wouldn't it be wonderful if St. Patrick's Day wasn't about being Irish at all? What if it celebrated all the times the human spirit has triumphed over separation and loss and learning to start over? What if this day in March was one when even the most resolute traditionalist among us raised a glass to the ebb and flow of human migration?

Maybe I'm being ridiculous, and Paddy's Day doesn't mean anything at all. Maybe it's really just an excuse to shake off a long winter. I don't think so. I'm Irish. I sing my song and hear people hum along. I hear it here so very strong.

Sometimes on dreary winter days, I miss the mountains and wonder why I'm still here, in this isolated garrison town. Am I just clinging to the ocean with my fingertips because it flows home? But deep down I feel connected to this city that has mastered the Atlantic Ocean.

Here, we cobbled together a society from the survivors of a hundred dislocations, clearings out and disruptions that happened here and worlds away. Our economy is organized around the work of coming and going; moving goods and food and people and ideas from somewhere to everywhere. The spoon of our harbour feeds our city and cradles a waterfront museum that echoes with the patter of a million feet.

If you think about it, Halifax is St. Patrick's Day and St. Patrick's Day is Halifax.

This year's party should be amazing. We've realized we have room to invite new people in. New songs. New stories. Shove up along the bench there, raise your glass, let's hum along.

click to enlarge opinion_voice1-b.jpg

Lorraine Glendenning is Nova Scotian and also Irish.  She works downtown and lives in Lawrencetown, where you'll see her and the husky on the beach most days.  You can tweet her a Happy St. Patrick's Day at @glendenning_l #butnotpatty

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