BIRMINGHAM, Ala. - While cleaning the many cans of Guinness from my annual St. Patrick's Day party, I reflected on how my opinions of my home country of Northern Ireland have changed in the 15 years since I moved to the United States.
Growing up a Protestant in Northern Ireland during the height of the conflict between Catholics who seek a united Ireland, and Protestants who swear allegiance to all things British, we really didn't celebrate St. Patrick's Day.
At that time, and to some respect now, Northern Ireland was segregated into two communities. Towns had Catholic and Protestant areas; in growing up, you were very aware of which side you belonged to.
In my town of Lisburn, I attended an all-girl Protestant high school and lived in a predominantly Protestant community. A few Catholics lived in my neighborhood, but often they would get a visit from "the boys," who told them to leave. If they did not comply, their house would be bombed with petrol. Then they would move.
On March 17 in my neck of the woods there were no shamrocks. and you had a better chance of tripping over a leprechaun counting his gold than of seeing your neighbor wear the green.
I had a few Catholic friends as I grew older, but the celebrations for St. Paddy's Day, if they could be called that, consisted of nothing more than another excuse to go to the pub for a couple of Guinness.
In 1993, when I came to America, I was living in Northampton, Mass., and attended the St. Patrick's Day parade in Holyoke, which has grown to become the second largest parade after New York City's. It was incredible: four hours of marching bands, cheerleaders and various "Irish" dignitaries turned out in rain, sleet and snow to celebrate the wearin' of the green.
The closest thing I had ever seen to the Holyoke parade back home was the annual 12th of July parade, when Protestants celebrate the defeat of the Catholic King James by the Protestant King William in 1690.
Marching bands from all over Northern Ireland and Scotland congregate throughout the province to honor their British heritage; many of the parades go through Catholic communities. These marches are a bone of contention. Until I moved here I never gave them a second thought. But I suppose if I were Catholic, living in a Catholic area, and year after year British citizens marched through my neighborhood for hours upon end, flying the Union Jack, singing pro-British songs and denouncing the Catholic faith, well, I'd feel a wee bit intimidated.
Since the peace process took effect in 1995, many concessions have been made regarding the routes of these parades, but they still continue to be a sensitive topic.
Upon arriving in the States, I was adamant about keeping my Northern Irish identity. When asked if I was Irish, I would correct my questioner and say I was from Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom.
Many years later, I have softened somewhat. I am still proud of where I come from, but if asked if I am Irish, I say yes. I realize that most people here don't know the difference and don't really care.
I am always amazed that for all the size of Ireland, most everyone I meet has some Irish heritage. I have read that more than 35 million Americans claim to have Irish ancestry, which is an amazing number, as only 6 million people live on the Emerald Isle.
So now, for me, St. Patrick's Day is a celebration. I have jumped on the American bandwagon and embraced the holiday. They are even catching up back home (it usually takes us Irish a wee while, but we eventually get there.)
Dublin has always hosted a huge parade. Now even Belfast is getting in on the act, hosting festivals and parades, but many Protestants wear orange instead of green. My mum just told me that St. Patrick's Day has been made into a bank holiday in Northern Ireland, which is a huge accomplishment.
I love the fact that here in America, you can be black, white, Jewish, Hindu, Muslim, Catholic or Protestant and still wear yer green, sing Danny Boy (badly) and be Irish for a day.
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