St. Patrick’s Day – When Far Away Fields Truly Are Greener

This is the article I wrote for the Orlando Sentinel, published March 17, 2015. Link below.

The Irish have a long history of immigration. We’ve been coming to the shores of America for hundreds of years now, and in 1993, when I was in my early 20s, I joined the slew. My father had encouraged me to leave my hometown of Cork and venture across the Atlantic, “to seize the power and opportunity of youth, and to be brave with my life,” as he put it. Neither of us truly wanted me to go, but opportunity was scarce in Ireland in those days, so I did what so many young people in Ireland did at that time, and left.Irish people, by virtue of a long history of both good cause and willingness to leave their native land, have an advantage over most other emigrant groups — the Irish pub, and the fact that there’s at least one in just about every city in the world. Downtown Orlando had three popular Irish pubs back then: Mulvaney’s, Kate O’Brien’s and Scruffy Murphy’s. I headed to Scruffy’s and left with my first American job.

Working with other young Irish in Scruffy’s, while getting my bearings in Orlando, helped ease the transition. There were more cultural differences than I had expected. One, which had particular bearing on my new job, was the way Americans drank. In Ireland, drunkenness was somewhat of an annoying byproduct of drinking while talking. In America, people showed up and wanted shots. I couldn’t believe the amount of Jagermeister and Goldschlager that Scruffy’s burned through in a weekend.

But that helped with the other American tradition I was growing fond of — tips.

As March 17 drew near, the seasoned staff tried to prepare me for the fact that my first American St. Patrick’s Day would illustrate another big cultural difference. It was primarily a religious holiday in Ireland, and so my previous St. Patrick’s Days were sedate, mass-going affairs made different only by the bunch of shamrock pinned to my lapel.

With that as past experience, the 12-hour onslaught of sweaty, green-clad, beer-swilling crush that I experienced in Scruffy’s on that first St Patrick’s Day was incomprehensible to me. With Irish music blasting, I balanced my heavy tray and pushed my way through the emerald throngs, white sneakers soaked green in a 2-inch lake of spilled beer, and I wondered if it would ever end.

All the while, I marveled at the idea of so many Americans devoting an entire day to celebrating my little country, so far away. Of course, I did have a sneaking suspicion that a love of Ireland wasn’t entirely the motivation for all the partying, but still, I couldn’t help but feel smugly validated in my Irishness.

In the 20-plus years since I arrived, much has changed. My husband, Tom, and I have become Americans and are busy raising our three American children. Our pub days have dwindled. Mulvaney’s, Kate’s and Scruffy’s have been replaced by Lizzie’s and The Celt. While there was a time when I felt I knew every Irish person in Orlando, I can’t say that today. If someone’s in trouble, though, we rally around. Orlando’s Irish have a Consul in Orlando now, as well as an Irish-American Chamber of Commerce. We have become a larger and more-distant, but better-connected group.

Though I never did ascribe to the shot thing, the cultural differences seem less now — in fact, I’m as likely to be pulled up for them in Cork as in Orlando. I certainly don’t balk at raising a green beer on St. Patrick’s Day, though a pint of the black stuff is my preference. I love that my native country, for whatever reason, is the focus of major celebrations on March 17 every year. My children get to revel in their Irish heritage, while also appreciating their bountiful American lives.

My father visits us in Orlando often. He looks at the life we have built, and he says that our bravery has been rewarded. I tend to agree.

Cathy Tobin of Orlando has been a Montessori teacher since 1994 and is working on a graduate degree in educational leadership.

Copyright © 2015, Orlando Sentinel

The Agony of Saint Patty


The Irish have made their way across the Atlantic Ocean to American shores since the 1600s.  Today, over thirty-three million Americans proudly identify themselves as being of Irish descent. In fact, it would be a rarity for a native Irish person to set foot on U.S. soil without encountering at least one American interested in relaying information about their own distant relatives from county something or other. Quite a turn around from the experience of the first few native Irish to make the trip, when being from Ireland wasn’t considered such a boast-worthy condition. The Irish however, not generally known for their sensitivity, persisted in coming and now there are enough Americans with some bit of Irish DNA somewhere in their gene pools to warrant a good annual celebration of all things Irish.

Growing up in Ireland my memories of Saint Patrick’s Day involved having a bunch of shamrock pinned to my lapel, being made to go to mass, and then standing around in the cold and rain on the streets of Cork city watching the parade (a fairly uninspiring procession of tractors pulling hastily decorated trailers) go by. The happiest part of the celebration for me was a day off school. It was only after I emigrated to the U.S. in the early 1990s that I discovered the true importance of St. Patrick’s Day.

St. Patrick’s Day has been a celebrated enthusiastically in America since the late eighteenth century. There is something about being far from home that makes people more patriotic than they ever felt when nestled in the bosom of the mother land. While Ireland’s first St. Patrick’s Day parade didn’t occur until the 1930s, the first parade in New York hails back to the late seventeen hundreds, and Savannah’s parade has been on the go since 1824.  Shortly after my departure the Irish Government decided to use St. Patrick’s Day to showcase Irish culture, and it became a big deal in Ireland too.

I arrived in Orlando, just a year before the World Cup of 1994 brought a new wave of Irish to the area. My very first job in Orlando was in an Irish bar downtown, Scruffy Murphy’s. The more seasoned staff tried to prepare me for the bedlam that would accompany my first American St. Patrick’s Day, but there was nothing they could have done or said that would have allowed me to grasp the magnitude of it.  The crush of “Irish”, the wearing of the green, the drinking of the green, the drunkenness.  I just couldn’t wrap my mind around so many people out to celebrate my little country, so far away. It took a while for it to dawn on me that there was very little genuine celebration of Ireland going on in Scruffy’s that day, that it was more about a national excuse to party, but I still felt personally appreciated and validated in my quiet suspicions of superiority.

My Irish experience of St. Patrick’s Day had nothing at all to do with ostentatious parades, green rivers, green beer and all day celebrations, but I embraced the traditions of my new country. I have to admit that I initially balked a little at the green beer situation, preferring a pint of the black stuff, but eventually assimilated it into my growing American consciousness. Drunkenness, green beer, partying – OK, I can ascribe to all that.  But there’s one thing that I have yet been able to embrace, and I know that I am not alone in my abhorrence.  It’s one little word that comes around every March, and has the power to turn the stomachs of Hibernians everywhere – Patty.

Allow me to try to explain. If your name should happen to be Patrick, I’m sure you wouldn’t be too upset about having it casually shortened to Pat or Paddy.  But Patty?  Patty is a girl’s name.  Patty is a burger.  Patty is something you might step on in a field. Patty is not a man’s name, and certainly not the name of the patron saint of Ireland. To help you understand the affront, picture Liam Neeson as St. Patrick.  Now project yourself back in time to Ireland circa the mid 400s.  You are exploring the waters and the wilds and happen to run into the impressive and pious man.  “Hello Patty”, you greet him.  Think about it.  He’s not going to be impressed. I imagine you’d be dispatched as quickly and decisively as the snakes.

Paddy derives from Padraig, which is the Irish for Patrick. It’s one of the two accepted shortenings of the name, the other being Pat. Digging into our less than auspicious beginnings in America, the Irish were derogatorily referred to as Paddies. It was a Paddy Wagon you see, not a Patty Wagon.  The Paddy thing is something we’ve come to accept with a grudging affection.  If it had been Patty, however, I think we’d still be having a problem.

So my dear Americans, I love your country so much that it’s now my country too. I thank you for your embrace of my native land and your love of all things Irish.  I derive great pleasure from people I meet who are anxious to link their heritage to mine.  I will indeed be drinking green beer with you on March 17th, but, I beg you, it’s St. Patrick’s Day, it’s Paddy’s Day, you can even, at a stretch call it St. Pat’s. But please, do us a favor and spare us the agony of Saint Patty.