When I moved to Vancouver Island in 1996, I was surprised and disappointed by the islanders’ lack of enthusiasm for St. Patrick’s Day.
I remember asking my colleagues at the time what their plans were for “Paddy’s Day,” as it is affectionately known in my hometown of St. John’s, Newfoundland.
They looked at me with questioning looks and said the plan was to go to work, like every other work day, and then come home for supper.
It was the first time I realized that the Rice Festival is not a public holiday here like it is in St. John’s.
In fact, Paddy’s Day was one of my favorite days of the year. It’s a civic holiday where I come from and the festivities to celebrate it were popular and well attended when I lived there.
Unlike many North American cities where Irish people settled and assimilated into larger local populations after fleeing Ireland in the 1800s when the potato famine was killing large numbers of people, St. John’s filled with these wandering Irishmen at the time and they became the dominant culture in the city.
Today St. John’s has become a much more complex and cosmopolitan place with a variety of peoples and cultures, but 30 to 40 years ago it was Irish culture that dominated and became quite evident in every Paddy’s Day.
Bars and pubs in the town center started to fill up around 11am and long queues formed there as people sought to get a helping of homemade Irish stew and beer dyed green while that bands were setting up and playing lively Irish and Celtic music. .
By mid-afternoon, the party really started to take off as thousands of people, many dressed in leprechaun outfits, strolled the streets checking out the Irish-themed food and drink that every spot had. The water offered, and the sounds of the many bands playing at dozens of venues would drift through the air.
Then, around 3 p.m., the local Benevolent Irish Society would leave their private pub, where they had spent much of the day, and begin to gather in their town center car park to prepare for the annual parade of paddy’s day.
I don’t remember if the Benevolent Irish Society ever received official permission from the local authorities to hold these parades, or if it was even necessary at the time, but there never seemed to be much order as its tipsy members paraded through the streets of downtown. .
They looked dignified and dapper in their full regalia and carried Irish and Canadian flags at the start of the parade, along with pipes and drums, but it was still pretty obvious that more than a few of them had consumed too much green and Irish beer. whiskey before their march.
Some of the flag bearers were beginning to veer off course and crash into cars parked at the side of the streets, much to the loud, raucous laughter and delight of the crowds who had gathered to watch the display; many of whom were no more sober than the walkers.
Others in the parade would see family and friends along the parade route and, oblivious to the fact that they were supposed to be marching in some sort of military formation, would chat, which inevitably ended in a visit to the bar on closer. establishment to restock beer.
Typically, only about half the parade made it to the end before retiring to their headquarters.
Those were special days and Paddy’s Day is one of the few times I still feel homesick for St. John’s.
It was a celebration that the majority of the city shared and savored and, although there was debauchery, it brought us all together as a community at least once a year.