St Patrick’s Day has many guises

There’s not much happening in Darwin for St Patrick’s Day today but I’ve been reflecting on the day and its role in my family’s history.

My immediate thoughts turned to the St Pat’s Day concerts we would sometimes hold at our school. I remember we would practice all the old Irish songs like When Irish Eyes are Smiling or Glorious St Patrick. We’d be lined up on stools to sing in the classroom that became a hall when required. My mother reminded me that in those days St Patrick’s Day would be a holiday for the Catholic schools though that changed over the years, no doubt due to government funding. It was traditional to wear a little button affair with a simple shamrock on it, and green ribbon underneath. This was done right through my school years if I recollect correctly. When at work I’d try to wear a green dress just to join the fun.

I looked at Trove (troved?) to see what was in The Courier Mail for when I was growing up but the digitisation stops before then so couldn’t add a great deal there. However I did find a story about St Patrick’s Day in Townsville in which my mother and her sister are mentioned as “maids of honour representing the purity of Erin’s daughters”.  My grandfather was a member of the Hibernian Australasian Catholic Benefit Society (HACBS) and one of the members told me that he remembered my grandfather helped to build the floats for the St Patrick’s Day procession. My grandfather was a carpenter with the Railways and always involved in parish activities so I think it’s a safe bet that this story is accurate.

From a different perspective my father witnessed the violence and aggression of the St Patrick’s Day march and Police action when the railway unions were striking in 1948, not long before he and my mother were married. A history of Queensland[i] shows a picture of the event and I would bet a winning lotto ticket that my father is the man sitting on his haunches on the side of the footpath, Gladstone bag by his side and cigarette in his hand. As was typical of him, he wouldn’t give away whether it was him, but I do know that he witnessed the violence because he warned me when the anti-Vietnam, civil liberties marches were front-and-centre in Brisbane in the 1960s. One day I’ll have the opportunity to make it to the Trades and Labour Council archives to see what other photos they have of this dramatic event.

And in a frivolous end to the story, how lucky were our children that when we left Ireland after a holiday in 2006, we didn’t buy a great big green cowboy hat for Paddy’s Day. We’d have loved to have seen their faces when we got off the plane in Australia, but we couldn’t be bothered carrying such awkward and embarrassing items. A shame really.

[i] A history of Queensland from 1915 to the 1980s / Ross Fitzgerald

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