Saint Patrick, Parades, Bagpipers, and a Lake of Beer
By Francis Ambrogio
Few public celebrations stir up pride, passion, and memories for me like a Saint Patrick’s Day parade. It is a special day in a personal sense because many of my ancestors came to the United States from Ireland. Saint Paddy’s Day is, after all, the celebration of the Irish around the world and a reminder of their great struggles, which are only outmatched by their tremendous contributions wherever they ended up.
The more I learn about my family’s Irish roots, the more meanigful our personal connection becomes. Our Irish relatives and ancestors make a heck of a story, one definitely best saved for another time.
In another sense, this day can be special to everyone because Saint Patrick was a man of heroic virtue, worthy of emulation by Christians and non-Christians alike. Born in Britain, he was taken as a slave in his youth by Irish raiders. After escaping, he returned to Ireland – in those days one of the world’s most wild and dangerous places – to preach to his former captors. His famous prayer speaks of seeing “Christ in every eye that sees me [and] Christ in every ear that hears me” – which, although a Christian prayer, speaks to the universal good of looking for the best in every person we encounter, something he often did even towards people who wanted him dead and tried violently to make him so.
In a much more everyday sense, the Saint Patrick’s Day parade has simply always been my favorite. I’ve always enjoyed parades in general, but Saint Paddy’s is different. Uniquely, green is the dominant color. People are usually laughing and being goofy (sometimes not quite deliberately!) This is fitting, since the Irish are known for their easy smiles and witty humor – although this shouldn’t shrink into a stereotype, for the Irish are known for their brooding and lamenting as well. Theirs is a truly rich culture, deep in passion as well as pensiveness. It’s for good reason that Ireland is called “The Land of Saints and Scholars.”
Also, the music in a Saint Patrick’s Day parade is different from what we normally get to hear. Besides the traditional Irish music, there are the bagpipes. Some love them, some hate them. I happen to fall into the former camp. The pipes have a truly unique sound, blasting out far and wide – so loudly, in fact, that it’s said pipers are always walking because they’re trying to get away from the noise!
But not all bagpipes sound that way. There are many types from all over the world with their own unique sounds. Usually, though, the cacophonous type used in parades is the Scottish Great Highland Bagpipe, which has a particularly loud shriek, or “skirl,” that was originally intended to be heard over the din of battle.
I myself gave the bagpipes a shot when I was a cadet at West Point… although my skills left much (and I mean much) to be desired. That aside, the Pipes and Drums Band was a terrific group to be part of – we went on fun trips, got to hear some awesome music, and be part of some great events. Once, after I’d learned to be a drum major – perhaps due to my horrendous piping – I was tapped to lead the band in the Tartan Day Parade in Manhattan. Our band got to be at the head of the entire column as it marched down Sixth Avenue, since the US Army is the oldest branch of the military service and the oldest institution of American government (after Congress, who we were fortunate not to have marching in the parade, since their presence would likely have brought it to a bickering halt).
Thanks to Uncle Sam, I’ve had more than my fair share of opportunities to view parades, and to participate in them, too, often after being “voluntold.” But Saint Paddy is the one whose parade back home in Greenwich brings back the fondest memories of parades for me, like standing out in the brisk New England wind, waiting for it to start, and then getting excited to hear the pipes, see the floats and dancers, and catch candy. Or asking Mom and Dad what a “Marshal” was. Or seeing some of the pillars of our community like firefighters and police officers out on the march while one of the priests from my parish was up on the stage, offering an invocation. These are special things we see on Saint Patrick’s Day, things that give depth and texture to our community.
So, enjoy the festivities – take it all in. Learn about the people who are marching and the stories behind them. There is a rich heritage to be discovered, even if you are not lucky enough to be Irish. Enjoy the bagpipes, if you can… and if you can’t, just remember that you can find some relief in the same way as another one of Ireland’s patron saints, a holy woman named Bridget, who famously prayed for “a great lake of beer” to drink from for all eternity. Here’s to Ireland and to America – Erin Go Bragh!
Francis Ambrogio is a cavalry officer in the United States Army. He is a Cos Cob native and a graduate of Greenwich High School and the US Military Academy at West Point. These are his views, and not necessarily those of the Army or Department of Defense.