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    “My heart leaped up with so much joy”: Happy St Patrick’s Day!

    By Noreen Bowden | March 17, 2011

    Every St Patrick’s Day, I am reminded of my favourite book, The Hard Road to Klondike, and Micheál MacGowan’s poignant story of St Patrick’s Day in All Gold Creek in the Yukon. In case you’re not familiar with the book, it’s the translation from Irish of the oral memoir of Donegal native Micheál MacGowan’s adventures in Montana and the Alaskan Gold Rush. It’s wonderful.

    I love the story of this impromptu St Patrick’s Day parade  (probably Alaska’s first!), not least because it’s true. MacGowan’s tale captures the camaraderie, fun and poignancy of a good St Patrick’s Day celebration far from home. The story opens early on St Patrick’s morning with our hero, high in the hills, five miles from the nearest village, gathering a can of snow to melt for water for his breakfast.

    As I stood there, suddenly I thought I heard pipe-music in the distance. At first I thought it was a dream but in a short while I heard it again. I straightened up then so as to hear it better but as luck had it, didn’t the piper stop playing as soon as I was in a position to listen properly. It was some time before he started up again but when he did he seemed to be closer and the music was clearer; and wasn’t the tune he was playing ‘St. Patrick’s Day’! I’d say that by then the piper was three or four miles away up in the hills behind us; there, then, was I, three thousand miles from home but, in the time it would take you to clap your hands, I fancied I was back again among my own people in Cloghaneely. My heart leaped up with so much joy that I was sure it was going to jump out of my breast altogether.

    I ran back into the cabin and told my friends what was happening. They came out and when they heard the music, they were so overjoyed that one of them rushed around with the news to all the Irishmen in the neighbouring cabins. They too got up and when they also heard the pipe-music coming towards them they nearly went out of their minds. They went roaring and shouting around the place so much that you could hear the echoes coming back out of the mountains and valleys surrounding us. Everyone waited there until we felt the piper was coming near to us and then we all went out to meet him. Nobody was fully clothed and half of us hadn’t eaten at all but our blood was hot and despite the frost none of us felt the cold a bit! When we met him, we carried him shoulder-high for a good part of the way back. He was brought into our cabin and neither food nor drink was spared on him. And it was still early in the day.

    When everyone was ready, he tuned his pipes and off we went four abreast after him like soldiers in full marching order. There wasn’t an Irish tune that we had ever heard that he didn’t play on the way down the valley. Crowds of people from other countries were working away on the side of the hill and they didn’t know from Adam what on earth was up with us marching off like that behind the piper. They thought we were off our heads altogether but we made it known to them that it was our very own day—the blessed feast-day of St. Patrick. On we marched until we came to the hotels and we went into the first big one that we met. Without exaggeration, I’d say that there were up to six hundred men there before us—men from all parts of the world. We were thirsty after the march and, though we hadn’t a bit of shamrock between us, we thought it no harm to keep up the old custom and to wet it as well as we were able.

    We had a couple of drinks each and, as we relaxed, I stood up and asked the piper to tune up his pipes and play us ‘St. Patrick’s Day’ from one end of the house to the other. The word was hardly out of my mouth before he was on his feet…

    The men drown the shamrock exuberantly at the town’s hotels, their day only briefly disrupted by the violent dispatch of an Orangeman who didn’t appreciate the celebrations. (We’ll skip that bit.)

    As night fell, we all gathered ourselves together again and set off up the hill along the way we had come until we reached our own cabins again. We were tired out and it wasn’t hard to make our beds that night. The piper spent the night with us and next morning he bade us farewell and went off to the back of the mountain where himself and two friends of his were working.

    A loyal good-natured Irishman, like thousands of others of his race, he left his bones stretched under frost and snow, far from his people, out in the backwoods, where none of his own kith would ever come to say a prayer for his soul. We heard that he had been killed in one of the shafts shortly after he had come to us to keep the Feast of St. Patrick with his music in All Gold Creek.

    A bit of a sad ending there, but MacGowan himself had a much happier one. He went home to Donegal in 1901, travelling first class with the fortunes he brought from the Gold Rush. “I had seen enough of modern times in America; and it was like a healing balm to find myself under the old rafters again.” He decided to stay in Donegal, fell in love, married, and raised a family – and MacGowan, one of Ireland’s greatest emigrant adventurers, declared he would rather see one of his eleven children “gathering rags” than heading for America.

    Happy St Patrick’s Day – I hope you’re parading where ever you are!

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