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Culture

“A Fair day at Donnybrook with nothing barred”
A short celebration of Ireland in honour of St Patrick’s Day
Ian Mitchell

T
he only non-Russian saint’s day publicly celebrated in Moscow is St Patrick’s Day, when there is a parade down the New Arbat. St Patrick is the patron saint of Ireland, having brought Christianity into the island and expelled the snakes. Actually, Ireland never had snakes, but that is the nature of myth and legend, which are stronger in Ireland than in most places.

The tradition is that St Patrick, who died on 17 March 460, taught the Irish about the Holy Trinity by referring to the shamrock, the three-leaved variety of the clover which symbolises the fertility of well-watered fields. So little is known for sure about St Patrick, that it might be better to celebrate his memory by simply stating three things that I, as an outsider, love about Ireland.

The first of my trinity is the Irish sporting spirit. Though it happened twenty years ago, I remember with undimmed joy the experience of going to see Lester Piggott riding at the Ballinrobe races.

Having sailed from Scotland round to Westport, County Mayo, my wife and I hitch-hiked out into the lush countryside. We found a course laid out amongst hay-bales and oak trees over a couple of fields that normally had cattle in them. Nonetheless there was a small grandstand, plus a forest of bookies’ pitches and a long bar.

The afternoon sun slanted in from the west and the greatest flat jockey of all time galloped round this little course (he came 6th) for no reward but the simple joy of sport amongst people to whom that was enough for an afternoon’s entertainment, which is why he did this every year. He was one of my wife’s heroes, and he seemed to be similarly regarded by the locals, partly, I am sure, because he had only recently finished serving a jail sentence for VAT fraud—another type of sport.

The second thing I love about Ireland is the wit, especially literary wit. There is only space here to give one example, which comes from one of the lesser-known stars of the Irish literary firmament, Flann O’Brien. In the 1950s he wrote a column in the Irish Times—the pieces are now collected in book form—which was unlike anything found in post-Cromwellian Britain.

Here is his definition of the Gaelic word, Cur. First, as a verb, it is “the act of putting, sending, sowing, raining, discussing, burying, vomiting, hammering into the ground, throwing through the air, rejecting, shooting, selling, or addressing.”

As a noun, it is “the crown on castiron buttons which have been made bright by contact with cliff faces, the stench of congealing badgers’ suet, the luminence of glue-lice, the noise made in a house by an unauthorised person, a heron’s boil, a leprachaun’s denture, the act of inflating hare’s offal with a bicycle pump, a leak in a spirit level, the whine of a sewage farm windmill, a corncrake’s clapper, the scum on the eye of a senile ram, a fairy godmother’s father, the art of predicting past events, a wooden coat, a custard-mincer, a blue-bottle farm, a gravy flask, a timber-mine, a Fair day at Donnybrook with nothing barred, a stoat’s stomach-pump.”

And finally, there has to be music. I hope everyone will open YouTube on St Patrick’s Day and listen to the the Dubliners singing The Fields of Athenry: www.youtube.com  







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