Expert Speaks on St. Patrick's Day, Irish Music and Celtic Dance

Americans have their own interpretation and understanding of St. Patrick's Day, but what exactly is this holiday all about? Does the green beer and leprechaun d├ęcor do the day justice?

Christopher Smith, associate director of musicology and director of the Texas Tech Celtic Ensemble, said there's almost nothing about the North American version of St. Patrick's Day that he enjoys.

"I don't really dig the loud raucous behavior, overconsumption, green plastic bowlers and so forth," Smith said. "In Ireland, Patrick's holiday was a day to go to Mass and then enjoy a festive dinner with your loved ones."

It's only in America, and only since the 1960s, he said, that it's turned into an excuse for what he calls knuckleheaded behavior.

Contrary to popular belief, the real St. Patrick wasn't even Irish. According to National Geographic, he was born in Britain around A.D. 390 to an aristocratic Christian family. At 16 he was kidnapped and sent overseas to Ireland for seven years.

A voice came to Patrick in his dreams telling him to escape; he did, and then eventually returned to Ireland where he died on March 17, 461.

Slowly, mythology grew up around Patrick, and centuries later he was honored as the patron saint of Ireland.

Smith said he's been around Irish music and Mississippi Delta Blues since he was 11 years old, when he heard it played live. He said he was utterly riveted by the intensity, directness, immediacy and pure sonic power of these musics.

"I didn't know what either of them was, but I knew I wanted to make that noise," Smith said.

Smith has played Irish traditional music actively since around 1977, and he said one of his greatest joys is to play for good dancers who respond to the music.

"When the musicians and dancers are truly in sync," Smith said, "it lifts the floor under their feet, as the Irish say."
He said one of the greatest joys of Irish music and dance, as with so many other folk and traditional dance musics around the world, is to participate actively.

"But the greatest joy of all is to be part of that music and dancing, and in that sense it's open to everyone," Smith said. "Everyone can be welcome to participate, and thus to enrich their cultural lives."

Contact: Christopher Smith, associate director of musicology and director of the Texas Tech Celtic Ensemble, Texas Tech University, christopher.smith@ttu.edu, or (806) 742-2270.