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St Patrick’s Day

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The other day, after seeing the fantastic film Ladybird, I had a discussion with a friend about how to pronounce the name of the film’s lead, the Irish actress Saoirse Ronan. My English friend was unsure but said she trusted her Irish-born housemate’s interpretation, who rolled every single vowel around his tongue with skill, before kissing the name with his lips and pronouncing it “See-ah-er-sha”, reported The Guardian (UK).

My version, admittedly, came out in an English-Irish hybrid accent that I seem to do whenever I have to say an Irish name (my future daughter will be called Órlaith or Orla, but I loathe my natural voice when saying this), and my friend was confused. “Depending on what part of Ireland you’re from, I think Saoirse can be pronounced a little differently,” I explained, having spent most of my life in the presence of many a dulcet Irish tone (via my mother and her extended family, and having watched Ronan explain the same thing during an interview). My friend protested slightly – her housemate knew best as he was, you know, Irish.

It’s not the first time someone has forgotten or excluded me from Irishness, accidentally or otherwise. I am a mixed-race woman and therefore find that I often have to assert my claim to the emerald isle. Despite my family links, memories of Guinness-stained pub sessions and long, cool stretches of summer spent under the balmy and bruised skies of West Clare, my claim to a country and a culture that’s in my blood is sometimes balked at by those who still believe Irishness and whiteness are exclusively linked.

Growing up, I’ve fielded many probing questions, and unpicked the shock and awe from strangers about my own Irishness. I always felt I could not truly belong in the same way as many of my white friends (who also have one Irish parent) can. I shunned Irish dancing lessons as a child, believing that my presence would be ridiculed, and I always ignored St Patrick’s Day.

But I’ve recently been piecing together the shards of my black heritage, and it has also brought me closer to my Irish side – teaching me that the bonds of association between the two are symbiotically linked within me.

It’s often said that black people and the Irish have a somewhat shared history of oppression. It’s not until the mid-20th century that Irish people became perceived as “white” in North America, when their demonisation as migrants slowed down; and of course in the UK, there were the infamous “No blacks, no Irish, no dogs” signs, the Irish jokes, and stereotypes and suspicions during the Troubles.

In recent years, immigration from Africa to Ireland has boomed, and now when I return to County Clare I see more black people than ever. This new wave of black-Irish has led a burgeoning hip-hop scene; the Limerick-based group Rusangano Family last year won the RTÉ Choice Music Prize for their debut album. One of their videos shows two of their members (who were born in Zimbabwe and Togo) dancing on the Burren, a vast stretch of cracked bedrock with cliffs and caves and rock formations in the background. I know that spot. And I couldn’t have imagined, visiting as a child, that this otherworldly Irish landscape would one day welcome people who looked like me, filming a rap video and embracing all parts of their heritage.

I’ve also found the modern-day definition of Irishness expanding, thanks in part to plays such as Lynette Linton’s brilliant #HashtagLightie – which followed the drama of a London-born, black-Irish family – and a 2016 exhibition in the London Irish centre, #IAmIrish, that curated portraits of mixed-heritage Irish people.

My mother and I have also begun discussing how overcoming pernicious racial and cultural stereotypes have formed the backdrop to our lives in the same countries but in different skin. When she came to Britain in the 1980s, people would endlessly comment on her accent, or mistakenly link her to the Troubles in Northern Ireland. She’s starting to understand exactly why I crave pride and knowledge in my own identity as she has in hers; and why getting to grips with my Irishness and blackness is crucial to understanding more about myself.

Of course there’s more than one way to be Irish, just as there’s more than one way to be black, and exploring this whole issue with my mother, and realising how Ireland itself is changing, is why this St Paddy’s Day I will be able to celebrate wholeheartedly, for the first time.

***

Early on St Patrick’s Day morning I meet St Patrick. He has his trademark hat, crozier, robe, chewing gum and sunglasses. “My full name is St Patrick’s Day,” he says, “like Daniel Day Lewis. If we were to get married, you’d be Mrs Day. If we had a kid I’d call him Opus.” – reported The Irish Times (Ireland).

St Patrick also goes by the name Johnny Murphy. It’s his eleventh “or possibly twelfth” year leading the parade. He’s a street performer and mime and he can do a good Robert DeNiro Impression. He loves it, he says. “The high fives are great, a lot less time consuming than a hand shake. I do a lot of selfies. I’ll do maybe 150 of them today.”

He’s hoping to meet the festival’s guest of honour, Mark Hamill, and wonders what to say to him. “I don’t want to say something he’s heard a million times. Maybe I’ll try ‘May the gale-force be with you?”

It’s pretty windy with flurries of snow. At ten the early risers are already taking positions along the metal barriers. “Preparation is key,” says Paul Scarff. He’s standing across from the Savoy Cinema with his wife Niamh, their children Adam and Orla and Orla’s friend Rebecca. They’re garbed in “six layers of clothes”, green face paint and illuminated green novelty glasses and have come equipped with umbrellas, chairs and bags filled with sandwiches, water and crisps. “But they wouldn’t let me bring my lightsabre,” says Adam, still feeling the injustice.

Ringsend woman Betty Small, who has lived in South Wales since 1961, has come back for the parade every year since, this year with Welsh friends Jane Wilcox and Joyce Price in tow. “I just love seeing all the children dressed up,” she says. She knows to be at the barrier early and to have a hip flask of brandy in her handbag. She opens her bag and offering me some. Wilcox and Price show me that they have tiny green cups hanging amid the garlands of fake shamrocks around their necks. “For the brandy,” explains Price.

“You’d need a nip of something,” says Small. “The legs get cold standing out here.”

At the junction of Abbey Street Marian White, who has been selling souvenirs for 41 years, is trying to stop her stall of flags and scarves and oversized leprechaun hats blowing away in wind. It was all shamrocks and paper hats in the early days, she says. And her mother, Callie Duffy, was “the first woman to ever sell a shamrock in Dublin.”

Up at Parnell Square the various floats and marching bands gather in the freezing cold. Frank Tyrell, one of the men responsible for maintaining the Lord Mayor’s golden Eighteenth Century carriage, shows me something he discovered when refurbishing it a few years ago - several coins embedded in the woodwork. “Put there by tradesmen,” he says. “As a kind of signature.”

Nearby cheerleaders from the University of Illinois “Marching Illini” huddle together for warmth. “It should be okay when we’re moving,” says Caitlin Grant unconvincingly. Around the corner a cluster of members of high Legacy Highschool Lightning Marching Band from Colorado are loudly singing ‘Never Gonna Give You Up’ by Rick Astley. “We’d usually sing something by Journey or Queen,” explains trombone player Matthew Ray lest I judge them.

Shawn O’Sullivan and Colin O’Neill are with Dowtcha Puppets from Cork and are dressed as “rogue seagulls.” “Our job is to try and pester people for chips,” says O’Neill. Some other performers dressed as hapless policemen are tasked with trying to keep them in line. “We’re meant to be as annoying as possible,” says O’Sullivan. “Which isn’t too difficult for me.”

Mike Leahy from Spraoi in Wexford is responsible for a series of huge, beautifully grotesque insects - a spider, a fly and a bee that lays “eggs” that various costumed performers then place in a hive. He calls it all Insectopia. “What if evolution took a different turn and we evolved from insects?” Leahy asks, which seems like a reasonable question to me. “I figured there’d be a lot of turf fires elsewhere today.”

As the day progresses, the street fills with people in leprechaun hats, face paint and novelty sunglasses. The best way to hide today, in fairness, is to dress as a leprechaun, though some internationalists are content to stand out. There are six lederhosen clad Bavarian butchers here to compete in the World Butcher’s Challenge in Belfast. And I see a Mexican man in a sombrero embracing an Englishman dressed as a bride. “My wife! My wife!” he cries.

It’s difficult to see the parade if you arrive late. The streets are thronged. The employees of Dublin Bus have apparently filled each level of their building with children and the savvier spectators have brought stepladders. Three generations of the Small family are standing on a metal platform originally hauled from a skip. “The best stuff comes from a skip,” says Alan. He’s holding a bichon frise named Lola in his arms while keeping an eye on his nephew Harry, niece Ruby and Ruby’s friend Alexandra. For forty years, Alan and his brother Peter have come to the parade with their dad Séamus. Except for one year. That was two years ago when Séamus was very ill with a brain injury and apparently on the verge of death. “But he’s still here,” says Peter patting him on the back. The parade is very important to Séamus. In the past his Lambretta Club would patrol the parade on their scooters. Members of the club still send him cards every Patrick’s day.

Game of Thrones star Liam Cunningham also recalls watching the parade with his father and so he couldn’t quite believe it when they asked him to be this year’s Grand Marshal. “I said, Marshal? Do I get a six shooter and a badge?”

He is hugely honoured to be asked, he says. He works with Syrian refugees and for him the internationalism of the parade is very important. “And I thought my mother would burst with pride… she treated it like the third secret of Fatima… If I had a choice of winning an Oscar or being Grand Marshal for the St Patrick’s Day Parade. I’d pick this. You only get to do this once. Sure you could win an Oscar anytime.”

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