I hated my red hair in the sixties. One St. Patrick’s Day, I sneaked green food color out of the house and poured it on my head in the school bathroom. It rained at recess and green flowed onto my freckled face and I looked like a moldy piece of white bread. I was already an anomaly in the small town I lived in – flaming redhead living with four dark-skinned Italian-American brothers with our single mother. I was the only redhead in town. When I was older, I searched for the puzzle piece to my appearance and learned that I had Irish ancestry and wasn’t a “redheaded whop” as I was derogatorily coined. Honestly, it took years for me to become comfortable with the color of my hair, my pale, freckled skin, and humble beginnings.
Eventually, I became more than just comfortable with myself. That puzzle piece locked into place and I liked the picture so much, I framed it. Sure, it took a few years and we all know that placing puzzles in a frame is a bit tacky, but so what? My life, my picture. I visited Ireland, learned to dance, and as a writer began to hear the haunting refrains of my ancestors who wanted their stories told. So many years have passed now and I am celebrating the release of my third Irish-American novel, Norah: The Making of an Irish-American Woman in 19th-Century New York.
But in regards to St. Paddy’s Day (ugh, I do not like the word, paddy), I never really celebrated it as a young person, except for the food coloring year that caused me humiliation. In upstate New York, I had been raised amongst the garlic-eaters and not the potato-eaters, thus, the bawdy celebrations on St. Patrick’s Day were never really a part of my life. I never looked good in Kelly green, anyway. But later in my life, how I loved to dance! It is said that a good Irish dancer can dance in a small space, “minding the dresser,” and so there were times I would just have to go out on St. Patrick’s Day to try and dance in small spaces. However, dancing in a pub on this day can be lethal for body and soul. You can’t walk through a crowded pub on St. Patrick’s Day without being bumped and groped, with whiskey-whispers and beer blasted breathing down your neck, let alone dance. And because we host ceilis at our house in New Hampshire, I decided one year we would host a St. Patrick’s Day ceili. Wrong! Many un-Irish people (what a snob I am) came wearing fluorescent green and orange, draped in the Irish flag (how disrespectful), asking for green beer and corned beef, slurring speech and ignorant of their history. And they didn’t know how to dance! Ever since that time, St. Patrick’s Day ceilis have been banned at our house. Bad spirit altogether. Hard to believe that St. Patrick cast out the snakes, fairies, paganism, and all the magic for the sake of Christianity and we ended up like this? And was he not English, this Patrick slave? It’s as if the English conquered way back in A.D. 432, way before the Norman-Anglo invasion. Alas, the fairies still thrive in Ireland (and thank St. Patrick, the snakes do not), the magic is still there, and Celtic Christianity has its wisdom, truth, and beauty. But I’m talking there and here. There, St. Patrick’s Day is a holy day and has been a different sort of thing. Here, long ago in New York City, the parades were important. It gave the down-trodden and despised paddies unity, strength, and respect, especially when the Orange parades reminded them that even in America, they had to watch their backs. But watch their backs and fronts now, people! With pride and wonder. Oh sure, there’s still the tacky, throw-up green, element to the day, but more than anything, there’s a celebration of a people who have taught humankind how to tenaciously survive, overcome prejudice, dance, laugh, and lift a pint or two in spite of troubles.
A few years ago, I lowered my standards and donned some green (Hunter green, not Kelly green) and went out with friends to eat corned beef and cabbage. I had been thinking about what Yeats wrote, “I must lie down where all the ladders start, in the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart.” And in that Irish place of the heart, there is a ravenous desire to party. And I was certain I would dance.
Hours later, standing in a pub packed together like sardines in a tin and oiled by Guinness and Irish pride, there was no way out. We’d be crushed to death if we tried to leave. I lowered my standards even further and flirted with two men sitting at the table who could either view our backsides or bellies. I chose to belly up and hold it in, and they offered us their seats and left. We ate our boiled dinners with broad views of derrieres in our faces. The inevitable need to use the ladies’ room became a concern and one friend stayed to hold down the table and the rest of us held hands to push our way through the crowd. By the time we returned, we had descended to the very last rung of the ladder. I took a fork and tried a stab at being humorous and pretended to stab the butts sticking in my face. I accidentally brushed a tine across a tightly clad pair of jeans and when the woman wearing them turned around, I said, “Happy St. Patrick’s.”
We had another round of Guinness (it was being slopped onto us, anyway) and I began thinking about climbing up the ladder, even if I couldn’t get to the top rung. I had said I’d never dye my hair green again and embarrass myself again on St. Patrick’s Day! But wait! I heard a band warming up. Strains of an electric fiddle began to climb up the ladder and reach the top of the pub. A welcomed fiddle tune charged into the room and played on our festive hearts, but it ended barely before it began. With one Irish tune out of the way, the band launched into a series of rock songs.
A sudden fairy blast struck my feet and I climbed up on my chair to dance. The band was playing a Jimi Hendrix song, but the Sidhe (fairies) like all music. As I danced, others stood on their chairs to dance, too. The whole place had climbed to the top rung!
By the next morning, the fairy blast had subsided and a friend, who had been with me the night before read aloud the first line in her poem, “When you dance, I can see your soul shining in your face.”
The dance begins on the low rung and soars to the top, but it must begin in the fleshy heart. I won’t ever be disdainful of St. Patrick’s Day again and I will always dance, whether on the floor, mid-air, or upon a chair. And I will dance to anything—silence, rock music, or traditional Irish music, for certainly, all that matters is that I dance.
In all seriousness, do something different this St. Patrick’s Month and read The Irish Dresser, Hope in New York City, and my new novel, Norah. Get started now because you have time; there are a couple of weeks before St. Patrick’s Day. And on that day, go out and dance!
“Besides eating green frosted cupcakes, families might celebrate St. Patrick’s Day by reading a book about Ireland. More than two million Irish people emigrated, largely to the United States, during the potato famine of 1845 to 1850 and another one million died of starvation. Author Cynthia Neale limns these terrible times in The Irish Dresser. To forget the hunger, 13-year-old Nora McCabe hides in her family’s big dresser and daydreams about food and a richer life. Her father manages to scrape together passage on a ship to America, but there is no ticket for Nora. The piece of furniture is her only hope; and she stows away in it for the long journey filled with sickness, hunger and unfair treatment of the poor. In addition to a grip-ping plot, the story is beautifully told in the cadences of Irish speech.” ~ Mary Quattlebaum, Children’s Literature Critic