Saturday, March 19, 2005

The Spirit of Bacchus

With the events of the St. Patrick's festival in mind, and having seen all the spectacular drunkeness here in Belfast on Thursday, I thought of my favourite account of the Day that was in it. Written by Honor Tracy, it recalls a St. Patrick's Day in Dublin in the late 1940s. I've pasted it in below.

Mind You, I've Said Nothing!: Forays in the Irish Republic, of which the Paddy's Day story is one chapter, was is a very very funny account of an Ireland that has passed. Almost. The book is not precisely, um, politically correct, but I fully recommend it. It's proof (if such a banal proof were ever needed) that some of the most affectionate and witty literature about Ireland has not been written by the Irish. Or, at least, it appeals to my perverse sense of humour (especially the bit at the end)...

Anyway, it's just over a five minute read and is well worth it, both as a marker for what's changed in the country and, more amusingly, for what's remained the same.
All Honour to St. Patrick

Once upon a time I chanced to be dining in a hotel in a small English town on St. Patrick's Day. A long trestle table had been set up down the middle of the restaurant and round it sat a company of jovial, red-faced, perspiring men; some wearing green paper hats, all with the shamrock in their button-hole. The solid part of the meal was over and the celebrants were settling piously down to the bottle and exercise of wit.

"Buckingham Palace? Is that a hotel or something?"

Howls of laughter greeted the quip. Emerald streamers darted hither and thither about the room, wavered and fell in one's plate. From a neighbouring bar came the lusty strains of "The Boys of Wexford" intermingling with those yet farther off of "The Wearing of the Green." Small parties of excited youths were ranging the streets outside, shouting and cheering. Now would come the sound of a sudden fierce altercation: now, again, the tinkle of falling, broken glass.

I observed that the lips of some one at our table were moving.

" What did you say?" I screamed.

" I said," he bawled, "what on earth must St. Patrick's Day be like in Dublin?"

Yes, to be sure. I remembered his reasonable inquiry as the day of Ireland's Saint came round again this year.

It began with a cold wet cheerless morning. The wind appeared to blow from all points of the compass at once, a trick of which Dublin winds have the secret. The sky was a grey feathery mass; the rain pattered down in little stinging freezing drops. From some of the public buildings dangled the gold, white and green flag of the Republic, limp and forlorn. The shops were closed, the streets nearly empty, the people at Mass.

At some moment in the morning a pageant of Irish industry began gradually to assemble in St. Stephens Green. Lorries advertising this and that Irish product or activity were slowly easing themselves into their places, causing disruption to the traffic. Sometimes it was a little hard to grasp the idea behind the displays they mounted; for example, a Board na Mona (Turf Board) lorry was transformed into a simple hencoop, protected by wire netting and decorated with flowers in which half a dozen hens ran peevishly up and down. Between these ruffled birds and the highly interesting and important work of the Board it was difficult to see a connexion. Other lorries drew attention to the excellence of certain English goods, toothpaste and cigarettes and so on, of which the makers had opened factories in Ireland and which therefore at a pinch could be included. The truly native products of whiskey and stout were also represented, drawing a faint cheer from the lookers-on.
Later on the newspapers would remark with satisfaction on the great progress made by Irish industry since the founding of the State.

The Anti-Partition League had put its oar in, as was to be expected, and their tableaux vivants struck a welcome note of fantasy in the prosaic turn-out. One of these had an Orange-man in bowler hat and sash vainly trying to make his way across a barrier to a tall handsome young man in green while a fat and truculent John Bull prevented him. Another showed Erin in stately green robes and golden crown plucking at the strings of a harp and mourning her six lost counties, which sat huddled together in front of her sniffing loudly and wiping their noses on the backs of their hands. The figure of Robert Emmett stood below a gallows fearlessly confronting a judge in scarlet robes; a placard quoted him to the effect that his epitaph was never to be written until Ireland took her place among the nations of the world and demanded: WHEN?

The public received these inflammatory gestures with calm, if not indifference. Even the children showed no concern for the plight of Robert Emmett but stared glumly in front of them as if their thoughts were elsewhere. Their English contemporaries, faced with a spectacle of the kind would have given delighted cries of "Go on! string 'im up! get on wiv it !" or other such signs of childish interest; but these little souls were speechless and impassive as orienta1s. A man pushed by with several small girls dressed in blue coats and hats and white socks, with their pigtails tied up in bright red ribbon. On such a day the colour scheme could hardly have been an accident, must surely have been intended as a demonstration, the work of some implacable diehard, but nobody minded.

For that matter, who in Ireland does mind about such things? The Anti-Partition League is always ready with its peep-shows, its leaflets and posters, its denunciatory references to "police states" and "occupied territories." Politicians, without a single constructive idea in their noodles except for their own welfare, can lash a crowd to fury by harping on the injustice of the Border. Americans of Irish descent are fond of raising an easy cheer in the same way and can always depend on space in the newspapers for it: to read some of these newspapers, indeed, you would think the disunity of Ireland was one of Washington's larger worries. Some lone crusader may announce his intention of recruiting and training a private army to invade and conquer the North. Foreigners are button-holed in private conversation and Ireland's case, suitably distorted, is put to them with an intensity of emotion that carries them away: returning home they gravely report that on this issue at
least all shades of opinion are in agreement.

There is, however, a gulf between public attitudes and private opinion in Ireland; it is the land of Double Think and Double Speak. Should anyone wish to test the truth of this he need only sit back and quietly watch what is done, ignoring all that is said. It will gradually come to his notice that when all the breast-beating and tub-thumping are over, the sobs hushed and the tears dried, the Irish very coldly and shrewdly do whatever seems to them wise and convenient. They are as canny a race of men as ever walked the earth.

There is another side of this question which ought not to be forgotten. The Border is the last of Ireland's grievances, real and fancied. The mind takes fright at the thought of what will happen when it is gone. From that day on the national pastime of railing at England will have to be given up. A wit has suggested that, on the contrary, then will be the moment to begin work on the most grievous injustice of all – namely, that the sun rises just a little earlier there than here; and on the face of it the problem, being insoluble, seems wonderfully adapted to Irish needs. But too strong a protest against the arrangement might be condemned in certain quarters as contrary to faith and morals. It might be held, after deliberation in conclave, that responsibility for it did not entirely lie with the English. The quarters alluded to have not always been as sensitive to the propriety of nationalist claims as they apparently are to-day; they might once again come heavily down on the side of the established order.

For this reason and others the patriots should be in no hurry to sweep the partition away. There is no urgent need in their soul for the practical benefits of such a move to compare with the urgent need of feeling themselves wronged and of burning John Bull in effigy. They are constantly telling us how ill-adapted they are to this world, how one of their feet only is on the earth and the other in heaven, how alien, helpless and strange they feel in this life, how eagerly they look forward to that beyond the grave. On the evidence it looks as if they might be mistaken: and in any case there is no guarantee whatever that people unable to adapt themselves to this world will not prove an intolerable nuisance in the next one too: in fact, we may reasonably assume that they will. But that is their story and they are holding to it and it hardly squares with the frequent and impassioned demands for the "return" of the Belfast industries.

From their carryings on it might be suspected that the patriots feel this themselves. If the division of Ireland is an injustice, as they say, the task before them is surely to do away with it without creating another. They must induce the people of the North to join them of their own free will. They must persuade these fanatical Protestants that they would really be happier under a regime over which the Church of Rome has an absolute control. They must bring these hardheaded, hard-working, tax-paying, civically-minded creatures to believe that the gay anarchy of the South would suit them very much better. Nothing is impossible, but a programme of this kind would seem to call for an immense and sustained effort. It is so much jollier to strike attitudes and so much more appropriate to the Celtic genius. And hence on every public occasion there are these elaborate charades, staged in the happy confidence that nothing will come of them.

The pipers in their green and saffron kilts now set up a horrid wail, like the wail of a hundred massed banshees, and the procession jogged slowly off in the rain. It took just twenty minutes to pass a given point and it was the highlight of the day. Nothing remained but hurling and football matches in the afternoon and the Dog Show at Ballsbridge. Everything was closed out of respect for the Saint, shops, pubs, places of entertainment. People walked drearily through the wet streets with dull Sunday faces, longing for all to be over. My companion of that evening years ago in England would have found the contrast an instructive one. Could these limp Dubliners have been transferred by magic to Broadway, for example, they too would surely have capered and cut up and cracked skulls in the blithe old tradition. With all the Jews and Italians and Germans looking on they would have become exuberantly and aggressively Irish. There would then have been alien presences, even perhaps hostile ones, against which to react and before which to show off. But alas! what is the point of being Irish when every one else is Irish too?

Ennui, which is always just round the corner in Ireland, now openly stalked abroad. But the minutes and hours of the long grey day crept by and brought steadily nearer the hope of release. The brief space of permitted drinking in the hotels loomed closer and closer. Those who had been wise enough to lay in a provision against the saintly drought were already benefiting by their foresight. The spirit of Bacchus stirred uneasily in its sleep.

Some of us went down to the Dolphin in a band, hoping to shake off a little the despondencies of the fiesta. Happy scenes of revelry met the eye the moment we passed within. Unsteady figures cannoned into us, apologizing at once with a fine florid courtesy and sweeping exaggerated bows as we moved towards the Grill. Our path was blocked for a moment or two by a man whom we instantly recognized as one of Dublin's rationalist free-thinkers. He had taken exception to what he described as the "Protestant kind of laugh" of another guest and was offering to fight it out then and there. Laying a hand on one of our shoulders he appealed to us all to recognize the justice of his complaint. His adversary stood beside him and laughed repeatedly, an inane high-pitched laugh in which for the life of us we could detect no sectarian flavour. We passed hurriedly on, knowing that we stood near the brink of something dark and strange.

We made our way through the medley as best we could and sat down at a table. Our neighbour was a plethoric gentleman who sat, head bowed in hands, in front of a double whiskey, fast asleep. Another double whiskey stood at the place opposite him with no one apparently there to drink it. lt was a sight of pathos, calling to mind those stories of broken-hearted creatures who celebrate the anniversary of some dear lost one by eating in solitude a dinner served for two. Perhaps some private tragedy was similarly being enacted now? was that libation poured to the memory of some dead hero of the Irish Resistance? or simply one who had fallen victim to the rigours of an earlier St. Patrick's Day? But we looked again and saw that here was no phantom drinker but a man of flesh and blood. It was just that he was kneeling down, his legs under the table, his head on the seat of the chair, unconscious. The waiters were amused and tolerant in the delightful way of their land. For as long as he needed it the amnestied diner could depend on their support and protection. Presently he gurgled and, struggling to rise, rolled over and lay twitching at our feet. The waiters kindly lifted him up and propped him in his chair, whereupon, to their hilarity, he vanished under the table once more.

“Down the well again!"

“He's gone to look for his boots!"

And there he lay unheeded yet safe through the evening or, for all we knew, until the cool light of another day broke into the empty room. And the little incident stayed in our minds as a felicitous rounding-off to the whole occasion. Mass in the morning, vacuity through the day, oblivion at night: religion, inertia, alcohol: Ireland's Saint had once more been honoured in the appropriate style. And of the three leaves of the Irish shamrock the kindest and best is alcohol. From all terrors of life and death, from goblins, leprechauns and bishops, from sudden intimations of reality, dear Booze, set us for a moment free! so perhaps the Invocation in the preamble to the Constitution might be amended.

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