Up until 1494, snakes plagued the lush green hillsides of Ireland. Sheep, cattle, and people met a nasty fanged fate via the venomous beast that has become the archetype of all things evil. And then came St. Patrick. This hero in green flowing robes and a tall pointed hat shook his mighty stick and banished the brute from Ireland so that cows all across the land could chew their cud in peace (at least as much peace as can be had amongst the persistent wind and rain).
St. Patrick’s Day has come to commemorate that day and the saintly man who single-handedly saved the Irish wool industry. This day even features its very own version of the driving out of the snakes:
A variety of rare and exotic snakes are imported from all over the world. Upon arrival they are defanged and sterilized. On “the big day” they are released into a quarantined field, and the town’s folks chase them about, attempting to wrangle one of the slithering creatures. Once in hand, the person races to the water’s edge and dunks the little miscreant in the Atlantic until it ceases to wriggle. This is then repeated until all snakes have been caught. The person who manages to “banish” the most serpents is crowned St. Patrick for the year and is featured at several events culminating in the following year’s St. Patrick’s Day parade at which point the tall pointed hat is passed on to that year’s winner.*
This year we had the happy fortune of spending St. Patrick’s Day in Ireland. We began our day with some green drinks before beginning the 15 km or so to Doolin, a neighboring seaside village whose claim to fame is its being quite close to the awe-inspiring Cliffs of Moher as well as a cave containing one of Europe’s largest stalactites. We parked along Doolin’s main street to peruse the shops before heading to the outskirts of town and strolled along the muddy gravel road leading to the Cliffs of Moher as we waited for the parade to start.
Dancers, musicians, clowns, ghoulish-looking folk, tractors, mock Punch & Judy, and even a dog dressed up as the reincarnation of Hunter S. Thompson were all part of the St. Patrick’s Day parade that streamed through the main road of town. People dressed in green clothing and silly hats waved and cheered as the floats marched by. Kids pounced on the candy thrown towards the crowd while their parents leaned against the wall, sipped their Guinness, and smiled at the passing spectacle.
After the parade we ended up at McGanns Pub and waited for the traditional music to begin. Before the sponsored music, a group of 20-somethings serenaded the entire place in a variety of songs ranging from Celine Dion to Back Street Boys to an actual Irish song of sorts.
When the band finally came in to play, we apparently had prime seats as the keyboard player rested her instrument at the same table where we were seated. For the next hour or two we soaked up the twangs of a banjo as a man skillfully plucked away and the sometimes sorrowful voice of a woman as she sang her sweet laments.
Along the narrow and windy roads back to our flat in Fanore we encountered one of the stranger sights of the day. This particular stretch of road is no wider than a grocery store parking space on each side and is sandwiched between a pair of stone walls. While rounding a curve the beams from our car landed on two large creatures in a patch of grass that couldn’t be much larger than the dark figures themselves. As the beams moved past them it took a moment to register what I had just seen. A couple of cows mere inches from asphalt lie munching on some grass on this small green oasis where typically there is no shoulder to the road. Though a strange sight, it was also appropriate–two cows prayerfully chewing their cud in homage to their patron saint on his day of celebration.
All in all St. Patrick’s Day in Ireland was good craic! –Thanks Aileac and Willie for sharing that and a few other key Irish words and phrases which have helped me avoid some confusing conversations.
The next day we did it all again in the land of Fanore…
*As penance for horribly misrepresenting the story of St. Patrick, I’m linking to Wikipedia’s St. Patrick entry so that the misinformation I’ve sullied your mind with can hopefully be cleansed away.