These were informal, self-generated affairs, but from 1869, formal events were held at Birmingham Town Hall. Music Halls also staged entertainments, such as the revue ‘Irish and Proud of It’, shown at the Grand Theatre of Varieties on Corporation Street, in 1916. Populist entertainments like this chimed with some Irish but for others the simplistic portrayals of evictions and caricatures of drunken Irish strengthened their resolve to have their culture and experiences represented appropriately. Such sentiments were perhaps strengthened, given the revue’s performance just weeks before the Easter Rising in Ireland ushered in momentous changes to Anglo-Irish relations.
In today’s generally tolerant atmosphere, there is less sensitivity over community representation, with self-parody now playing a part in the City’s St Patrick’s celebrations. These last for up to two weeks, this year’s festival having been launched on the Sixth of March with a range of events (large and small) scheduled until beyond St Patrick’s Day. The main feature of this programme is the St Patrick’s Parade, which has a proud history, being the first in Britain [in 1952, beating London’s event by 45 minutes!]. Despite an absence of over 20 years from 1974, it has developed from 1996 to be counted as the third largest in the world after those in Dublin and New York.
What makes 80,000 people stand for hours in dreary March weather in dreary Digbeth to watch a parade? Why does a procession of [amongst many other things] vintage tractors and over-sized leprechauns excite so many and bring them back year after year? There are no simple answers, but underpinning the complex reality is a combination of the long standing devotion of many Irish people to the memory of Saint Patrick with the urge to celebrate and promote their Irish identity, wherever they may find themselves. The Parade showcases components of Irish culture, heritage and sport, giving snapshots of each which can be examined in more detail at various events throughout the Festival.Cynics see St Patrick’s Day as just one more element in the phenomenon known as ‘Marketing March’ where the celebration is commercially exploited along with events including the Six Nations Rugby Championship, Cheltenham horse racing festival and [even] Red Nose Day. Whilst Irish people are willing participants in all of these events, the more thoughtful recognise that the crux of St Patrick’s Day continues to be something worth nurturing. Running in parallel with the public, organised celebrations are informal, often private gatherings of friends and family, at home or in small venues.
St Patrick’s Day remains at heart a religious festival and whilst contemporary society in Ireland and across the Irish Diaspora is no longer so overtly religious, many people still recognise this element of the celebrations. The Parade’s opening Mass may not be as well attended now and the days of it ending at St Chad’s Cathedral are long gone, but many people still sing the hymn ‘Hail glorious Saint Patrick’ with a feeling of gratitude for his recorded decision to trust and minister to the Irish [Patrick was a Briton, kidnapped by Irish raiders, who escaped and subsequently returned to support Christianity amongst a mainly pagan Irish society]. The customary wearing of shamrock still reminds many people of Saint Patrick’s legendary use of the plant to explain the concept of the Holy Trinity. For many years the ceremonial highlight of St Patrick’s Day was the arrival via Aer Lingus of a consignment of shamrock from Dublin, to be blessed at St Chad’s Cathedral for distribution amongst congregations. Private devotions to the Patron Saint by their nature cannot be quantified, but are undoubtedly still observed in the City.
1974’s Pub Bombings created a climate where the St Patrick’s Parade could no longer be held and for twenty years St Patrick’s Day was celebrated in muted tones and within trusted circles. A mini-parade was organised for children, but this stuck to the perimeter of the Irish Centre in Digbeth and did not venture further afield. Events in Irish-managed pubs and clubs were staged and the shamrock continued to be blessed at St Chad’s Cathedral.The restoration and continued success of the annual, public parade has signalled a more tolerant time and the organisers have ensured that the Parade also reflects this openness. Members of other communities are encouraged to join in and Bhangra musicians and dancers regularly perform, as do Polish folk dancers and members of the City’s Chinese community. The historic significance of St Patrick’s Day for Montserrat islanders has resulted in a poignant link between Birmingham’s Irish and Montserratian communities. Montserratians celebrate St Patrick’s Day for the slave uprising in 1768 against their Irish overseers on this Caribbean island. Today, the two communities in Birmingham enjoy close relations, with exchange programmes and representative bodies on both sides supporting the ‘Green Shamrock’ symbol, which is used officially in Montserrat. For St Patrick’s Day in 2007 a sponsored Walk-a-thon raised funds for the organisation ‘Montserratians & Friends of Birmingham’. The Montserratian community has participated in events around the main parade for some years.
Birmingham Parade’s commitment to openness has enabled it to avoid the controversies that have dogged some parades in other major cities in recent years. It has remained open to displays and participation by LGBT groups such as ‘Cairde Le Cheile’ as well as women’s groups. In this regard, Saint Brigid has recently had an increase in popularity, as a further focus of Irish identity. Her feast day is the First of February and contemporary attention has augmented but not supplanted existing devotion to Brigid as fellow Patron Saint of Ireland. Like Patrick, her burial place is at Downpatrick.
If you wish to know more about the Festival, please visit http://stpatricksbirmingham.com/
Happy St Patrick’s Day
MS 3255 Journal of the Rev. T.A. Finigan [see MS 4755 for Typescript version]
MS 4237 ‘Records relating to Birmingham Irish Association and Predecessor Bodies’
MS 4755 ‘Records relating to Birmingham Irish Heritage Group’
- Chinn ‘Birmingham Irish: Making Our Mark’ (2003) ISBN 070930241X
- Groden ‘Saint Patrick, Spirit and Prayer’ (2002) ISBN 0855976373
- Limbrick ‘A Great Day: Celebrating St Patrick’s Day in Birmingham’ (2007) 9780955542107
- Moran ‘Irish Birmingham. A History’ (2010) ISBN 9781846314742
Jim Ranahan 12/03/2015