Sunday, March 18, 2007

Beannacht Lá Fhéile Pádraig

Three generations of Woolly Days' Irish family attended yesterday’s St Patrick’s Day parade in Brisbane. Upwards of 600 marchers, 40 floats, and eight marching bands took to the streets of central Brisbane on a sunny morning in front of crowds of tens of thousands to celebrate all things Irish. The parade started at the corner of George and Elizabeth Streets. It moved into Edward then Alice Street before ending in the City Botanical Gardens. The Brisbane parade was one of hundreds worldwide.

The day celebrates St Patrick, a Welsh, Scot, or perhaps Frenchman who brought Christianity to Ireland in the fifth century. These days, many scholars subscribe to the Two Patricks Theory. The Scot’s life is preserved in five manuscripts: one in the 7th century Book of Armagh, one in the 10th century Cotton Library; a third in the French monastery of St. Vedastus, and two more in the Cathedral Library of Salisbury.

The Welsh version of St Patrick was born Maewyn Succat. Maewyn was born to an Anglo-Roman family in 415 AD. When he was 16 years of age he was captured by an Irish pagan warlord, Niall of the Nine Hostages, who kept him in slavery until he escaped to France. Maewyn went on to become a priest, changing his name to Patricius, or Patrick, which derives from the Latin for father-figure. He back to Ireland to preach Christianity to his former captors.

The Scottish Patrick has many similarities to the Welsh one. He was born in 373 in Roman Britain on a town on the River Clyde. Aged 16, he was captured by pirates who sold him off to a chieftain in Northern Ireland. According to tradition he found Christianity during his time in slavery. Though he escaped after six years, he returned to Ireland in his thirties around the year 405. Patrick’s mission was difficult; the power of the Irish druids was strong. But his gift of oratory was strong, and like Jesus, Patrick was a great teller of parables. In the next 60 years he travelled the length and breadth of the country preaching and baptising new followers. He is said to be buried under the Cathedral in Downpatrick co. Down.

The French Patrick was Palladius. By 431, the number of Christians in Ireland was high enough to warrant the appointment of a bishop. Pope Celestine chose the Deacon Palladius to be the first Irish bishop. He arrived in Leinster where he met immediate opposition in the shape of the local chief Nathi Mac Garchon. But like Patrick he overcame most hostility to build churches and complete the Christianisation of Ireland. It is not known whether Palladius and Patrick ever met (assuming they were two separate entities) but it seems unlikely that these two early proselyters would not have crossed paths at some time.

The first St. Patrick's Day parade took place not in Ireland, but across the Atlantic. Irish soldiers serving in the English military marched through then colonial New York City on 17 March, 1762. Their march and their music helped the soldiers to reconnect with their Irish roots. Irish societies began to flourish in the newly independent US. These mostly Protestant societies competed with each other to hold parades. Irish Catholics arrived in greater numbers after the 1840s potato famine decimated the country. The annual parade became a show of strength for the new arrivals in their efforts to overcome sectarian hatreds.

The New York parade remains the worlds largest. The parade has been dogged by controversy in recent years due to its attitude towards gay marchers in the parade. The parade is organised by the secretive Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH). The AOH is a Catholic organisation which follows Catholic teaching in its opposition towards homosexual practices. That means gays are banned from marching. Despite gay outrage, the AOH won a court case in 1990s to maintain the right ban whoever they want from the parade.

Now the firefighters are also in the AOH bad books. The FDNY has been relegated from its usual position at the front of the 150,000 strong parade. The dispute started last year when the parade start time was delayed 35 minutes while New Orleans firefighters unfurled a banner thanking New York for Hurricane Katrina aid. The slowdown infuriated organisers who believed the firefighters were becoming a law unto themselves. John Dunleavy, president of the parade's organising committee also complained firefighters show up drunk for the parade and then continue drinking all day while in uniform.

But St Patrick’s Day and excessive drinking have long been intimate bedfellows. One newspaper described the scene on St Patrick’s Day 1847 “drunkenness, riot and disorder prevailed to an extent which was frightful to contemplate”. The day got so out of control that activist groups were set up to combat the link between the day and excessive alcohol consumption. They wanted to change St Patrick’s Day from a noisy fair day to a “puritan Sunday”. In 1924 they succeeded when the newly independent Irish Free State decreed that all public houses were to close on the national holiday. The laws were not reversed until the early 1960s.

Yesterday Irish were celebrating and commiserating contrasting sport fortunes in equal measure. Ireland is not renowned for its cricketing prowess but they celebrated this St Patrick’s Day with one of the sport’s greatest ever upsets with a three wicket win over Pakistan in Jamaica. The stunning result send the 4th ranked side out of the world cup and leaves the novice minnows Ireland on the verge of qualifying for the Super 8 phase of the tournament. But the nation’s rugby players couldn’t quite share in the Paddy’s Day celebrations, agonisingly losing the 6 Nations despite beating Italy 51-24. France won the tournament on points difference thanks to a last minute try against Scotland.

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