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UsedBlog Kitchen Party: Top Five St. Paddy’s Ditties

Every Saint Patrick’s Day since I left home more than twenty (mercy!) years ago, I have called my mother on the morning of the seventeenth of March.

(I say morning. I mean time zones permitting. It may have occasionally been some odd hour of the day when the phone finally rang.)

But on March 17th, as early as is civilized, we have an Important Family Holiday Ritual to enact.

Every family has its own little holiday traditions. Me & my mom? Not too many, surprisingly, given that we were a whole family unit unto ourselves for years, until my partner & kids came along. But holidays aren’t huge for us. We’re $20-in-a-card-and-store-bought-cupcakes birthday people. Don’t judge. Still. The one grand, consistent celebratory ritual we observe?

The Saint Patrick’s Day telephone call.

It’s simple, almost foolproof. The script goes like so:

Mom (henceforth called “Mam” in honour of the day): Hello?

Me: Top o’ the mornin’ to ye!

Mam: And the rest o’ the day to yerself!

Yep, that’s it. The whole thing. See, you can totally try this at home, kids! It’s fail-proof! Happy holiday traditions in twenty seconds or less! Just don’t forget the all-important response line: the “top o’ the mornin'” part gets a fair amount of play in mainstream culture, but only the true Saint Patrick’s Day enthusiasts get the “rest o’ the day” bit sorted. Distinguish yourself.

Did I mention we’re minimalists for ritual?

Did I mention we’re also actually, erm, Scottish?

Go figure. You never can tell which cultural celebrations are going to float your boat. Or your leprechaun.

Photo courtesy of DragonFlyCustomCakes.

I suspect the strange attachment my mother and I have to Saint Patrick’s Day comes not from any particular affinity for shamrocks or green beer or even the exile of snakes, though neither of us would speak against the latter, to be sure.

Rather, it’s the music.

Out here on the East Coast, Saint Patrick’s Day has gradually become the one grand big-tent festivity for all the varied Celtic cultures and their kin, who in these parts comprise a good 50% of the population. Out of ancient feuds and more recent sectarian discord, our clannish ties have gradually diffused and assimilated, until the lot of us mostly know ourselves through our strange and inexplicable weakness for the caterwauling of pipes and the toe-tapping ti-deedly sounds of a fiddle.

It’s one giant kitchen party out here, on St. Paddy’s Day. And my mother and I celebrate largely, I suspect, because we get to sing. And maybe do a little jig.

Oh, we sing Danny Boy, sure (we skip the high notes). And Black Velvet Band, and When Irish Eyes are Smiling, though since we’re not actually Irish and weren’t big Mulroney/Reagan fans back in the ’80s, that’s not a particular favourite.

Nope, we love the rollicking ones, the rousing jolly corkers.

Now, thanks to the marvels of YouTube, you too can hold your own personal St. Paddy’s Day kitchen party. Hoist a green beer, or far more authentically, a Guinness or a shot of uisce beatha, and join us!

Here are my Top Five Irish(ish) Ditties, for your St. Patrick’s Day enjoyment. Top o’ the morning, the afternoon, and evening, all to you!

1. Lily the Pink – The Irish Rovers

Many of you who grew up in Canada in the ’60s and ’70s may be familiar with The Irish Rovers via their relatively famous and fanciful rendition of the Noah’s Ark story, The Unicorn. With the green alligators and long-neck geese? Yeh, that one. Unless your parents happened to be either rabid fans or Maritimers, however, you may have missed the lesser-known but terribly catchy “Lily the Pink.” In its wry tone and its topic, it introduces two of the five key themes of Irish music: the underdog identity and, um, alcohol. Even the kind that comes in liver tonic form.

2. If I Should Fall From Grace with God – The Pogues

If you’ve never danced to this after entirely too much green beer…well, you haven’t lived. That goes for you too, my teetotalling mother. It also introduces two other key themes of Irish music: fierce, clannish defense of place, and tragic death, preferably alone and pining. Or at least at sea.

3. The Wild Rover – The Clancy Brothers with Tommy Makem

This entertaining ditty – a staple of Irish pubs the world over – gets you clapping and stomping at just the right times. I have long suspected – and Wikipedia kindly confirms – that the “right up yer kilt!” refrain commonly shouted after the “No, Nay, Never” line of the chorus suggests the song may originally have been Scots, not Irish. In fact, in its Scottish incarnation, it may have been a temperance song, a redemptive story of leaving alcohol behind. The afore-mentioned tee-totalling Scottish mother? Is very pleased to learn this. And hoping I take notes.

In the ironies of cultural export, however, “The Wild Rover” has become one of the best-known Irish drinking songs. Hey, we Scots aren’t really known for our pubs. Note that either way, the narrator is that same fey underdog outsider who runs through Celtic bardic tradition. And that here, the Clancy Brothers call it “an Australian song.” Ah, those Scots and Irish sure do get around.

4. Whiskey in the Jar – The Dubliners

See theme 1, theme 2, theme 3, and a nice twist on theme 4: instead of tragic death, we have tragic betrayal. By a woman, but of course. Cultures based in masculine individualist heroism tend to render women either mothers, muses or monsters, easily bought by the baubles and power of The Establishment. Irish drinking songs – and Celtic music in general – are overwhelmingly anti-Establishment. And often slightly misogynist.

But, hey, there’s no accounting for taste: this remains one of my all-time favourites. An Irish classic from the 17th century, it’s been sung a hundred different ways over the years. I have a personal soft spot for the Grateful Dead cover, and Thin Lizzy and Metallica made it a rock-n-roll/metal staple for two consecutive generations, but for St. Paddy’s I’ve posted the more classic “Irish” stage version.

5. Over in Killarney – Oscar

And then, the topper, the ballad to mother, which me mother sang me herself in my childhood, and which I’ve sung to my own kids since their cradle days. There’s no liquor, and only a faint suggestion of tragic, lonely, impending doom: rather, this song covers the final theme of Irish music, and it covers it in spades: sentimentality.

In lieu of an, erm, professional cover, I offer my boy, a few Saint Patrick’s Days ago when he was only three, as tone-deaf as his mother and her mother before him, and couldn’t even pronounce the letter “l” in “toura-loura-loura…” Hey. It’s cute. And if a mother can’t be proud and clannish on the 17th of March, when, then, I ask you, can she be proud and clannish? 😉

This one’s for you, Mam. Top o’ the morning to ye, and happy St. Paddy’s.




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One Response to “UsedBlog Kitchen Party: Top Five St. Paddy’s Ditties”


Why doesn’t it matter WHAT u write about? —- it always makes me cry!


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