Horses and Bulls and Why I Don’t Celebrate St. Patrick’s Day

Yesterday was St. Patrick’s Day. You couldn’t escape it in downtown Toronto because every pub in my neighbourhood cranked out the Van Morrison while party people dressed in green, drank green beer and drank green shots until their skin matched their clothes.

I used to stand among them. I used to sneak out of work early whenever St. Patrick’s Day landed on a weekday and rushed myself to the nearest Irish pub before the massive crowd arrived. I used to elbow my way to the front of the line-up and desperately tried to catch the attention of the disinterested bartender pouring substandard pints of Guinness.

I used to…

But then I stopped.

And here’s why…

Bands, Bulls, and London Part 1: The Irish

In 2008, I was in London for a week researching locations and generating ideas for a future book. During my stay, St. Patrick’s Day arrived in all its green glory. But not one single English pub that day was draped in green. And certainly no one was uncouth enough to serve green beer. And I didn’t hear any Van Morrison songs.

I finally asked a bartender, “Isn’t today St. Patrick’s Day?”

“Yeah, so?”

“Well, don’t you guys celebrate it here?”

“Why the hell would I celebrate with the Irish? I’m not Irish. Let them all go home and get drunk with each other. And good riddance to them!”

Fair enough. Now I love the Irish. One of my favourite birthday celebrations was in 2007 when I went pub crawling in Kilkenny.

But I am not technically Irish. So why was I going around pretending I’m Irish for one day a year dressed like a leprechaun and drinking beer with food colouring in it? I don’t wear a kilt on Robbie Burns Day. I don’t wear lederhosen during Oktoberfest. And I don’t wear wooden shoes on the Dutch Queen’s Birthday.

The rude English bartender had a point.

Bullets, Butterflies, and Italy: The Italians

I certainly learned my lesson back in Italy not to expect to participate too intimately in local festivals when I observed Siena’s horse race festival, the Palio.

I mention my experience in Bullets, Butterflies, and Italy on pages 201 & 202:

“…I pieced together what I could about the previous days’ activities from the scattered newspapers on the bar, the disenchanted bartender, and the occasional customer who stood beside me to inquire about food and drink. But as the teen wearing the U2 tour shirt said, ‘The Palio has nothing to do with you.'”

Then again on pages 219 & 220:

“…The rest of Torre scattered to prepare for the Palio.

No one had accounted for me throughout that entire afternoon. Not a handshake, a touch, a wink, a welcome smile, or even a knowing glance. I clearly wasn’t in Torre’s embrace. I could watch, but I couldn’t interact or participate. My presence meant nothing to anyone. Dead or alive, I was equally insignificant…

…So I chose not to walk with the contrada to the Piazza del Campo. That was for them and them alone. But perhaps a handshake would have changed my mind. Or a touch. Or a wink. Or a welcome smile. Or even a knowing glance.”

Bands, Bulls, and London Part 2: The Spanish

So while the Italians ignored me, the exact opposite occurred during Pamplona’s San Fermin Festival in 2009.

I currently mention my experience in the upcoming Bands, Bulls, and London on page 265:

“…The air was thick with a palpable positive energy—and it was strictly adult. Everyone was smiling; every man was walking with a spring in his step; every woman was skipping and laughing. And everyone carried their own bottle of champagne or cheap store-bought sangria.”

Then again on page on 267:

“…And if you planned on keeping your clothes clean, forget it! It was a war out there. Within seconds of stepping into the square, I was sprayed with sangria and champagne. And pelted with eggs. And splattered with bags of flour.

And it came from all directions. From the people standing next to me. From the people standing far ahead of me. From the people standing far behind me. And especially from the people standing on the apartment balconies above the Plaza de Consistorial.

It was a sadistic sport. Hey, your shirt looks too clean. Pow! How do you like some eggs to go with that flour? Plop!

So what are you going to do about it? Get angry? No. You don’t like it? Leave.

Soon the sticky mess felt like a badge of honor. And it really didn’t last. Because the people standing on the apartment balconies also poured out buckets of cold tap water onto our sorry heads.

At ten twenty in the morning, we wore crisp white T-shirts. By eleven, we were repeatedly covered in breakfast food and subsequently doused by the good people of Pamplona.”


So I decided to no longer celebrate St. Patrick’s Day…not in Canada, anyway. Simply because I’m not Irish.

But the rules are completely different when you party abroad.

So if you go to Siena’s Palio Festival in Italy, you will be ignored.

And if you go to Pamplona’s San Fermin Festival in Spain, you will be pelted by food.

And if you go to St. Patrick’s Day in Ireland, you’ll probably wear green and drink Guinness. But don’t expect an Englishman to join you.

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