When I moved to Vancouver Island in 1996, I was surprised and disappointed by the lack of enthusiasm Islanders had for St. Patrick’s Day.
I remember asking my coworkers at the time what their plans for “Paddy’s Day” were, as it’s affectionately called in my home town of St. John’s, Newfoundland.
They regarded me with quizzical looks and said the plan was to go to work, like every other work day, and then head home for supper.
That was the first time I realized that Paddy’s Day is not a holiday here as it is in St. John’s.
In fact, Paddy’s Day used to be one of my favourite 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 the Irish settled and assimilated with the larger local populations after they fled Ireland in the 1800s when the potato famine was killing people in great numbers, St. John’s filled with those wandering Irish people 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 the Irish culture that held sway and that became quite apparent each Paddy’s Day.
The bars and pubs in the downtown core would start filling up at about 11 a.m. and long lines would form in them as people looked to get a helping of homemade Irish stew and green-dyed beer as bands set up and played lively Irish and Celtic music.
By mid afternoon, the party started really taking off as thousands of people, with many dressed in leprechaun attire, would be wandering the streets checking out the Irish-themed food and drinks that each watering hole offered, and the sounds from the many bands playing at dozens of venues would drift through the air.
Then, at about 3 p.m., the local chapter of the Benevolent Irish Society would leave their private pub, where they had spent much of the day, and start assembling in their downtown parking lot to prepare for the annual Paddy’s Day Parade.
I can’t remember if the Benevolent Irish Society ever received official permission from the local authorities to hold these parades, or if that was even required at the time, but there never seemed to be much order as its tipsy members marched through the downtown streets.
They would look dignified and refined in their full regalia and carrying Irish and Canadian flags as the parade began, along with pipes and drums, but it was always quite apparent rather quickly than more than a few of them had consumed too much green beer and Irish whisky in the lead-up to their march.
Some of the flag bearers would begin to veer off course and bang into parked cars on the side of the streets, much to the loud and raucous laughter and delight of the crowds who had gathered to watch the display; many of whom were no more sober than the marchers.
Others in the parade would see family and friends along the parade route and, oblivious to the fact they were supposed to be marching in some sort of military formation, would go over to have a chat, which inevitably ended in a visit to the nearest drinking establishment to replenish their beers.
Typically, only about half of the parade would actually make it to the end before retiring back to their headquarters.
Those were special days and Paddy’s Day is one of the few times that I feel some homesickness for St. John’s any more.
It was a celebration that the majority of the city shared and revelled in and, even though it had some debauchery, it brought us all together as a community for at least once a year.