More than Marshall: the true meaning of St. Patrick’s Day


It’s no secret that Waterloo’s student population does St. Patrick’s like no other. 

To many, the day means large gatherings, green gear and booze, commonly culminating in a large street party traditionally occurring on Ezra Avenue. Despite the Waterloo Regional Police Services’ efforts, such as fencing off Ezra in recent years, students have simply moved the party to neighbouring Marshall Street, demonstrating an unfettered will to keep the celebrations going.

“Marshall and Ezra’s [are] probably one of the more integral parts of Waterloo culture, it’s just like a known thing in the area,” said Alina Harvey, a third-year arts student. The reputation of such gatherings extends far outside Waterloo as well — Harvey added that her sister was coming from Toronto to attend the celebrations. “Considering that my sister’s more of a party person than I am, and she’s coming from downtown Toronto to Waterloo to party. That’s a bit of a first.”

However, such cultural connotations between St. Patrick’s and partying don’t sit well with some in KW. The Irish Real Life (IRL) Festival, hosted this year from March 9 to March 17, aims to introduce festival goers to aspects of both traditional and contemporary Irish culture. Sue Nally, creative director of the IRL Festival, is one of the organization’s founding members. 

“There’s much more to the culture and the representation this time of year is often kind of misconstrued. And so we wanted to offer something that showed a bit more about the breadth of the culture,” she said. 

Not all students associate Irish culture with St. Patrick’s Day. Harvey stated that she doesn’t think the celebrations have anything to do with Irish culture, and that the regular associations with “beer and green, and leprechauns and clovers… that’s a pretty limited perception of Irish culture in my opinion.” 

Addressing that limited perception is where IRL comes in.

One event of theirs focuses on Irish hip hop, something Nally says is a large part of modern Ireland. An example is the group Kneecap, a hip-hop trio from Belfast, who rap in Irish and use the hip-hop genre to tell stories about their lives, as well as comment on politics with titles like “Get Your Brits Out.” 

“That’s the young people’s way in Ireland of telling those stories and talking about their lives… People would never think of Irish culture, you know, having hip hop or something like that,” she said. “It’s important to me that people see just how broad the culture is.”

Nally acknowledged that certain aspects of the celebrations, particularly the tradition of wearing green, do hold positive significance in the context of Irish history. Green came to be associated with Irish nationalism in the early 18th century, when Irish nationalists as well as rebels who planned to revolt against British rule adopted the colour. As a result, the British imposed bans on wearing the colour, making the act punishable by imprisonment, execution and other penalties. 

“So there’s a small part of me that’s like ‘Yes, 30,000 kids are wearing green. That’s pretty awesome!’ So it’s sort of an… internal conflict there,” Nally said.

The association between St. Patrick’s and drinking also gives Nally cause for concern. “[Colonization] is part of the Irish story, and with post-colonization comes traumas, right, and drinking is often one of them. So having that associated as a representation of Irish culture, I always found that a little disturbing,” she said. 

Despite it all, Nally expressed appreciation of the “interesting phenomenon” that St. Patrick’s Day presents to her. “I don’t love all the ruckus that goes on, but I love that everybody’s walking around wearing green, saying ‘I’m Irish today!’… what other culture do people walk around going ‘I’m this for the day!’ and are excited about it?”

“[People] don’t know the breadth of the culture unless you have something for them to go to,” Nally said. To anyone interested in attending IRL’s events, she added that “[y]ou don’t have to know what you’re doing. You don’t have to know anything about anything Irish… you’re gonna have fun, maybe you’ll learn some stuff if you want, if not, it’ll be a neat experience, and everybody’s welcome.”