"The light heart lives long."
St Patrick's Day altar, 2012: All Saints Anglican Church in Patcham, East Sussex.
"The Fiddler's Elbow" in Brighton is ostensibly a decent, die-hard Irish boozer: every year, a local St Patrick's Day parade starts and returns there, and it generally hosts a weekend of Irish music and revelry. Having caught this year's flier (see below), I was quite intent on a Saturday evening of traditional Celtic high-jinks and the odd version of "Fields of Athenry" to sob into my glass of Virgin Mary to.
Having coerced a long suffering friend to go with me, we found that the pub's street party was two heaving beer tents outside the already rammed pub, with the "musical" element being drum and bass music belting out at eardrum-perforation level from a third tent. Apart from the Guinness and the ubiquitous lime-green party top-hats, Dublin and Belfast might just as well have been distant planets. I appreciate it was Saturday night and that this is very much a university town, but I can't be the only Brighton resident who expected to find the town that usually likes to enjoy itself a little too much most weekends a-wearing of the green and a-pogoing with The Pogues on this one weekend of the year?
I can't blame the pub: apparently they did have traditional Irish music playing on Friday evening, and they are patrons to Irish musicians across the year. It's a nice pub. Management were simply catering to your average Saturday night drinking crowd; just as the opposition were doing.
In 1800 there were some forty one inns and taverns in Brighton, equivalent to one inn for every thirty houses. They served the local fishing community upon which the town was founded, newly settled residents and the wealthy visitors and trippers who'd taking a shine to the original English seaside resort. By 2011, there were around fifteen hundred bars and pubs in Brighton and Hove. According to a citywide poll last year, more than sixty percent of the population feel that alcohol has to feature in social activities for them to enjoy themselves. Given Brighton's dark, longstanding reputation for substance abuse, I fond this sad as well as damning.
I count myself incredibly fortunate that I've never felt I couldn't be merry or relaxed without a glass of something stronger than tea. I actually love the taste of a good white wine, a nice dry sherry or a sweet Tennessee whiskey, but my life isn't empty without it and I wouldn't even estimate that I have a "drink" once a week. I think I've only ever been drunk once in my life; I really didn't like it, or the sickness and fatigue that followed. When I was a bit younger, I could probably drink most of my friends, male and female, under the table and still get up and walk home, probably giving bi-lingual, accurate directions to tourists on the way. I've always said that after one too many for me, I go into my Kylie routine, suddenly remembering all lyrics and dance routines; two drinks too many would see me harmonising with myself as both Annifrid and Agnetha from Abba. Beyond that, I would just feel sick. And stop.
I see females out and about in Brighton of all shapes, sizes and sensibilities with the skimpiest clothing and the most staggering heels, all still trying to strike a pose, after many bevvies past my Kylie stage. Usually, they're struggling to look sultry whilst sat in the gutter or lying on the pavement. I've sometimes stopped to ask if they're OK as various lads have been circling around them like vultures, only to be shrieked at to **** off and leave them alone to "enjoy" themselves. Of course, just as frequently and possibly almost as vulnerable, I do see lads of all ages from fourteen to four score and ten, crying, puking, urinating or bleeding in the street. Those who've "enjoyed" themselves to the max would seem to be those doing all of the above simultaneously.
If I sound harsh, I'm not without empathy. My own family hasn't been a stranger to addiction: my mother's only brother literally drank his life away and two of her sisters died of alcohol and tobacco related cancers; my father's gentle and kind-hearted nephew, my cousin, died of heart failure at thirty years of age after drowning his sorrows a little too deeply a little too often. I know that for every person who drinks to remembrance, many drink to forget.
I've often perceived that the romantic but fiery Celtic psyche might lend itself more readily to that dream-catcher-turned-demon-drink. Walking home last night, I didn't see any drunk Irishmen (or women) on St Patrick's own evening. I merely waded through swaggers of smashed students and London day trippers, tripping over their green top-hats and asking what day it was.
Today, I lamented the lack of St Pat's shindiggery in Brighton this year with an Irish pensioner who frequents my local Sainsbury's for the warmth of the air-conditioning as well as that of the regulars and staff. He told me it was a pitiful St Patrick's when there was no room in any bar for a decent Irishman to fall down. I said I'd missed hearing dozens of versions of "The Irish Rover" and felt cheated out of even one sobbed refrain of "Danny Boy". His reply made me crack a smile: "We have these songs in our hearts. If you know them, you will know them all year round and forever." See, this is why I love the Irishness.
I do feel my St Patrick's weekend was hijacked this year by those wanting to get legless rather than jig, to get wasted en-mass rather than toast a feeling of heritage or togetherness. Ah well. I already have my newly acquired little ukulele and am looking to get my very own Irish drum, a bodrhan, as a belated birthday gift. Next year, I may be inviting selected friends to join me in my parlour for St Pat's tea, tatties and proper Irish drum and bass.
Wherever you've been this St Patrick's Day, whatever you've done and whoever you've done it with I hope it went well and safely and you've the shoes, the shillings and the smile to get you to Easter.
"May the saddest day of your future be no worse
Than the happiest day of your past."
"In Ireland the inevitable never happens and the unexpected constantly occurs. "
(John Pentland Mahaffy)
"You Couldn't Have Come At A Better Time" Luka Bloom
"You've got to do your own growing, no matter how tall your grandfather was."
"Raglan Road" Van Morison and The Chieftains
"God is good, but never dance in a small boat."
"The Fields of Athenry", wonderfully raucous version by The Dropkick Murphys
"Get on your knees and thank God for your two feet."
St Patrick's Trust
In 1987 a dedicated shelter was formed to raise funds as the church space was converted. St Patrick's Trust now offers help and support through the Night Shelter House and also the semi-independent organisation "Move-On Housing". As well as accommodation, the shelter is open from morning till night to offer advice, meals and social activities. The church continues to celebrate daily services.
Yesterday, St Pat's was offering tea, coffee and cakes and helpful literature to all-comers.