I don’t like Guinness and have a healthy fear of leprechauns, but nevertheless I joined the 29th St. Patrick’s Day Parade in Birmingham, England, on Sunday, March 17. My host, Noel, had suggested it, and I didn’t want to seem impolite. Birmingham’s parade is the world’s 3rd largest – after Dublin and New York. The city’s Irish culture has seen some dark days, particularly after the pub bombings in 1974, which stirred up anti-Irish sentiment, and understandably took the fun out of things for a while. But the parade has come back brasher, more boisterous, and tanked up than ever. As we made our way towards Digbeth Street, I began wondering why I was actually walking towards a condensed mass of British drinking culture rather than away from it (and even though a good slice of it was Irish, it was still taking place in Britain). It was only 1: 15 in the afternoon and the rubbish bins were bloated with beer cans. At least five people stumbled into me as I moved through the crowd (the swell estimated at 80,000 by one local paper), trying to catch a glimpse of the parade that now embraced multi-ethnic themes (including Chinese ladies twirling yellow parasols) alongside decidedly Irish ones. Evidently the point was to try to get as many beers in before the pubs closed at 4 pm (to re-open at 6); an arrangement with the local police to try to curb alcohol-related incidents. St. Patrick’s Day is dubbed ‘The friendliest day of the year’, but I was yet to be convinced, holding firm associations between public drunkenness and mindless violence. The street was a reeling blur of green, white and orange; the colours of the Irish flag. Girls barely tipping eleven years of age blearily clutched at cans of Guinness.
We worked our way through an endless stream of funny hats, and between cheeks adorned with temporary shamrock tattoos, until we arrived at the Irish Centre. Needless to say, it was a teeming mob.
A trip to the bar was an inching groin-rubbing squeeze through a sea of arms lovingly wrapped around sloshing pints that earned the same priority access as pushchairs.
There was no evidence of an age-limit in effect. I think as long as you knew that ‘Gat’ means ‘Guinness’ and you didn’t order some cissy English drink like vodka and lime, you got served. Next to where I was standing, a table loaded up with pint glasses, was guarded by rambunctiously cheerful women in plastic light up shamrock earrings and snug-fitting sleeveless dresses. They sprayed themselves with perfume and jumped up and down giggling furiously. I decided I needed to get into the spirit of things and ordered a pint of cider. A folk rock band fired up with the Pogues’ Fairy Tale of New York, (“A work of genius,” Noel noted earnestly) and to which the tight-dressed girls jumped and squealed appreciatively, lah lahing through most of the lyrics until they belted out ‘And the bells are ringing out for Christmas day!‘
Slipping into an adjacent ballroom sized bar, a more traditionally Irish band was stirring up the room. Old men were locking arms in dance with more snugly-dressed ladies with soft white arms. Teenage mothers were rocking dozy babies to the rhythm of the room. Two frizzy-haired shamrock-cheeked girls were continuously swapping iPhones to take photos of themselves hugging and kissing various members of their table. One of them was sporting those light-up shamrock earrings that I was beginning to eye rather enviously. There were no windows or clocks, which made all sense of time dissolve into dancing, laughter and the ever-flowing fountain of Gat. At the food table, a hand-written sign read: Bacon and cabbage stew. Chicken curry. My second drink was kicking in and the touch of Irish in my genes (only one ear and a thigh bone, though more than most of my wannabee American friends) was beginning to stir from its generational slumber. I found myself swaying to the waves of fiddle and accordian. Irish musicians had left me distinctly unmoved before. They may as well have been ‘whistling jigs to a milestone’ to quote an old Irish saying. And that was another thing. I was quoting old Irish sayings. And stranger still. No one had bumped into me for quite some time. I was now ‘co-ordinated’ Irish-style. And all of a sudden I was actually enjoying myself. There was a warm, fuzzy feeling in my chest and an unexplained love for all humanity, particularly the glittery bosomed woman astride her boyfriend’s lap, screaming “old tart!” at her good-natured mate. I had half a mind to grab an octogenarian, and tear off my polo neck to reveal my soft doughy arms.
“They’ve probably been drinking all day yesterday, and they’ll go on ’til late this evening,” said Noel. “Then they’ll get up on Monday and go to work,” he added with a note of pride.
As Noel and I meandered back home, down streets with circus stalls and dangerous looking rides manned by Guinness swilling giants, I found myself humming Chicago-born singer Aileen Stanley’s, ‘There’s a little bit of the Irish in us all.’ My only regret. I never did score a pair of those plastic light up shamrock earrings. Well, “The longest road out is the shortest road home.” Whatever that means.