Some Words on the Occasion of Arthur’s Day, 2013
“Sharpen his pillowscone, tap up his bier! E’erawhere in this whorl would ye hear sich a din again? With their deepbrow fundigs and the dusty fidelios. They laid him brawdawn alanglast bed. With a bockalips of finsky fore his feet. And a barrowload of guenesis hoer his head.”
–James Joyce “Finnegans Wake”
Arthur Guinness’s Day, an annual event to commemorate the memory of Ireland’s most beloved Biermeister, is probably the most ingenious holiday that almost never was. Because, after all, how do you get four million plus Irishmen and Irishwomen out on the streets to commemorate a national beer? Isn’t that what they’re always doing?
“If St. Patrick’s Day, Christmas, and Hallowe’en are festivals that offer an excuse to drink, [Arthur’s Day] has flipped the concept on its head and offered the drink as an excuse for a festival.” This quote from an Irish Times article may be trying to hint at a deceptive nature in Arthur’s Day’s so-called nationalist origins, yet no amount of criticism has been able to mitigate the popularity of the festival. What’s perhaps more astonishing than the idea of a holiday dedicated solely to the drink is the fact that, since 2009, the Guinness has flowed merrily all the way from Ireland to countries as diverse as Indonesia and Malaysia. The latter is particularly ironic considering that in predominately Islamic Kuala Lumpur (which religion forbids alcohol), Muslims are raising their foamy sláintes beneath hijabs.
It’s not only about Guinness, though. As if more efforts were needed to wrest attention for the festivities, local venues offer various performances the night of the holiday, some of which have been surprisingly big. Take away the Irish players and you’ve still got acts like Snow Patrol and Stereophonics in Dublin; Five For Fighting and, ironically, The All American Rejects in Kuala Lumpur.
So how does one celebrate Arthur’s Day? It’s not difficult. The holiday is every third Thursday in September (Arthur’s day=’Our Thurs-day”), with a cheers at 5:59 (1759) to cap everything off. Try and hit the streets at five o’clock however and you’ll have no luck finding any standing room. If you’re young and gainfully employed you fake a sick day and find a nice pub by noon: if you’re a student, you and the lads start celebrating the night before.
My Arthur’s Day was like taking a freshman course in nonlinear dynamics: everything moved too fast, I didn’t understand a word that anyone said, and at the end of the day I couldn’t remember most of what had happened. Which is to say that things were a success, more or less. At noon I took my first drink, and found myself on Galway’s Shop street three hours later with the lads.
The atmosphere was so energized as to be combustible; the bodies in the street were so close together that, even filled with seven Guinness, I found it impossible to stumble. Everything smelt like sweat and hops, salt and grass (it’s Ireland, after all).
Somehow I found my way to a queue for a pub, where I ordered two more beers for myself and my mate, although, when I turned around, I saw that they had both disappeared. No matter: after drinking Guinness for a month, your body learns to consume it like water and let you feel its characteristic heaviness the next day. This is both good and bad: good if you want to drink first and worry about the consequences later, bad if you hadn’t eaten anything since two burnt rashers and glass of milk that morning.
I took a sip. It was now five thirty.
I wandered and leaned and shoved my way back into Shop street. The crowd was already turning Irish-wild, that is, their faces were leaned and flushed like a field of carnations, and they were happily aggressive. One cannot help but make the comparison between Arthur’s Day and a tailgate, but I beg to make a distinction: the tailgate is meant to pregame the football; Arthur’s Day is its own pregame and celebration. What’s more, Americans seperate themselves for the tailgate: to each fraternity it’s own, and such. The Irish, for all their county rivalries, can’t wait to get closer to each other when there’s alcohol involved. Leave enough room to throw an elbow, but not too much that you can’t wrench a hug out of each other afterwards.
I asked the lad next to me to hold my Guinness while I took out my phone to take a series of blurry pictures. He returned my beer when, to my dismay, I found it empty. Fortunately, there was my mate’s Guinness in my other hand. All’s fair on Arthur’s Day, let it not be forgotten. And one does not commit the blasphemy of toasting the master with an empty cup.
And then, ten minutes later, Arthur owned the minute. Intermittent, confused, and messy, those cups exploded into the air like a large, ground-based Russian missile deployment. But nevermind the bad execution; within a moment the pandemonium had culminated into a drunk, brilliant success. Wounded Guinness hurled into the air scattered their contents as thisty drunks caught them on their tongues like snowflakes. A fraternal-smelling wetness prevailed. Stout-sticky shirts became a uniform of national pride. Notes from “The Fields of Athenry” were sung. People were climbing on buildings and lightposts and each other; I turned to my left and saw someone being thrown into the air.
Apart from this, there’s little else of the day to recount. I woke up with my contacts in and received a text message asking if I remembered falling off of a wall. This is of course university norm, yet there was a distinctive Irishness about the whole feeling that didn’t owe itself completely from the Guinness.
Our canonical festivals: Thanksgiving, Christmas, Valentine’s Day, Easter, the New Year’s, the Fourth of July, and even Halloween all owe their genesis to the concept of family togetherness, a national victory, or religious tradition. Arthur’s Day is much more personal. It is based upon a national hero and the Irish, despite what a sober community might attest, don’t forget the spirit of the session.
Naturally, it has precedents. Saint Patrick’s Day is the obvious one, though this has become so meshed in American culture that most people celebrate a mythologised figure than an actual man (and how many people know anything about Patrick anyway?). I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention James Joyce’s Bloomsday, yet the problem with this is that most people won’t go pouring into the streets to celebrate a dense, largely unread book from over a hundred years ago. Arthur’s Day is Ireland’s best hand by far and it’s a keeper. A shameless marketing ploy, sure (what holiday isn’t), yet one with roots steeped in a tradition recent enough and so widely shared as to be accessible to the whole country, and then some.
Ireland sober is Ireland free, once cried the nationalists. Ireland sober is Ireland stiff, corrected a bemused Joyce. And yet, four million raised Guinness have the true right idea. For one day a year, Ireland drunk is Ireland.