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How the Irish in lockdown Italy are celebrating St Patrick's Day

Italy's Irish residents mark St Patrick's Day with balcony singsongs and online parties.

With Italy currently in lockdown due to the escalating Coronavirus crisis, this year on 17 March Italy's Irish residents will be stuck at home and will have nowhere to gather to celebrate the year's biggest party.

This year has seen the cancellation of St Patrick's Day parades across the island of Ireland as well as in Boston, Chicago and New York, along with the otherwise unthinkable situation of Ireland's pubs being closed on their busiest day. The cancellation of these festivities is of course part of worldwide measures to stop the spread of the Coronavirus which in Italy has claimed more than 2,000 lives.

Irish Club of Rome

The Irish living in Italy were among the first in the world to grasp the fact that St Patrick's Day would not be marked with the usual celebrations, even before Italy's quarantine measures were introduced. The first event to be cancelled was the St Patrick's Day Gala Dinner, organised by the Irish Club of Rome, which should have taken place last weekend.

Tourism Ireland

This was followed in recent days by the cancellation of the Global Greening initiative in Italy, which would have seen the illumination in green lights of numerous Italian landmarks including Trajan's Column in Rome, the Leaning Tower of Pisa, the UniCredit building in Milan and the statue of Joyce in Trieste. Tourism Ireland made the decision to call off the event as a sign of "closeness to Italy and respect for the difficult moment that the country is going through."

Lockdown becomes lock-in

But does the nationwide lockdown mean that the Irish in Italy will be unable to meet up with friends to celebrate Ireland's national day with banter, song, music and, of course, a few drinks? Modern technology, come into the parlour! The Irish around the world are mobilising, as they always have done, with a virtual celebration of Ireland's patron saint.

Fields of Athenry

To the delight of the Irish living in Italy, their quarantined Italian friends have made international headlines for their joyous and uplifting balcony songs in the face of the deadly Coronavirus. On St Patrick's Day, Tuesday 17 March, it is the turn of the Irish to step out onto the balcony and join in a rendition of The Fields of Athenry at 13.00.

Set in the era of the Great Famine in the mid-19th century, the song tells of a young man from the west of Ireland who was caught stealing "Trevelyan's corn" to feed his starving family before being convicted and sent on a prison ship to Botany Bay. Mary and Michael sing to each other from opposite sides of the world - he from his lonely prison, she from lonely Athenry - with Michael imploring Mary to "raise our child with dignity."With growing international travel restrictions and quarantine measures in place, this poignant ballad will have a special resonance this year.

Virtual party

But far be it that celebrating St Patrick's Day should amount to weeping into your pint of beer or glass of prosecco inside your lonely palazzo walls! The Irish community of Italy has rallied the troops and will hold a virtual party in honour of San Patrizio, between 18.00 and 19.30 this evening.

Behind the initiative is 28-year-old Adam Patrick Fulham who recently set up a Facebook page and WhatsApp group to connect the Irish in Italy, many of whom feel isolated on their national day, and to boost morale during a very difficult time in Italy.

Irlandesi in Italia

The Irish have long been a nation of emigrants and, with connections going back centuries, it comes as no surprise that many of them have made their homes in Italy. What is perhaps more surprising is how many of these wandering Irish have settled in Italian towns and regions far away from Rome and Milan, without all the usual Irish support networks associated with large urban centres around the world.

Fulham, who has lived in Turin since last November, says the newly-founded group is for "people like me who have only been here a few months but it also has people here for 20, 30, 40 years who have never been connected with other Irish people. There is a woman called Eithne who posted in the group, saying it's wonderful to meet people in Italy who won't say her name wrong, as happens with Niamh or Saoirse."

Fulham said: "There is a lot of support given between people, but the group is also great fun with humour that only Irish people would understand. When life gets back to normal, we will definitely start doing business, community and cultural events throughout Italy. We are all looking forward to meeting each other."

As to how the Irish will spend the day from their homes, many people such as Jimmy Kennedy in Rome, will join their friends for online drinks; others such as Amanda Doyle in Alessandrina in the northern Piemonte region will wear green regardless of going out; while Kevin O'Brien in the village of Salorno near the north Italian city of Bolzano says he will celebrate with an "imaginary Irish breakfast" before singing the Fields of Athenry at 13.00 and playing Irish music all day.

Celebrating St Patrick at St Isidore's

Cancelled plans

Due to the prohibition of all public religious ceremonies, this year Irish residents of the Italian capital will be unable to attend the normally-thronged St Patrick's Mass which should have been held at St Isidore's College, followed by a reception in the church's cloister. Fr Hugh McKenna, Guardian of St Isidore's, said it was apparent for long before the government's decree and subsequent suspension of public Masses that it was "highly unlikely" the event would go ahead.

"It’s an anxious time for everyone and it’s heartbreaking to hear the stories coming out of the north of Italy" - said McKenna - "We are on complete lockdown here. All our staff have been at home since the day after the decree was signed so we are discovering hidden cooking talents among some of the friars. Everyone is chipping in and playing their part. We are very appreciative of the efforts of the civil authorities to bring the situation under control. We are now an international community but in these days we are all Italians. We are praying for the people of Italy every day."

The community of St Isidore's will still celebrate Ireland's national day behind closed doora however. "We will gather for Mass as usual but there will only be ourselves present" - says McKenna - "We found some shamrock in the garden to decorate the church and have set up a painting of St Patrick for the occasion. We will sing Hail Glorious St Patrick on behalf of all the Irish in Italy!"

Irish pubs

It is a difficult time for Italy's Irish pubs which would normally be packed on St Patrick's Day, with large crowds of Italians always showing up to raise a toast to S. Patrizio with their Irish friends. Declan Crean is the owner of Scholars Lounge, Rome's largest Irish pub, which employs around 15 staff from Ireland and is the recipient of the Best Irish Pub in the World award. “It’s very hard being closed for a week already and now with the biggest day of the year coming up, it really makes it sink in" - Crean says - "Having said that, the main thing at the end of the day is that everyone is safe."

Irish ambassador

Another sadly-cancelled event is the St Patrick's Day party at the Irish embassy in Rome, a normally happy and nostalgic event much appreciated by Irish residents of the capital. Wanted in Rome received the following message however from Villa Spada: “Ambassador Colm Ó Floinn and the team at the Embassy of Ireland would like to wish all the Irish in Italy, and their families and loved ones, a very Happy Saint Patrick’s Day. We are living through a difficult period but as we celebrate our National Day, necessarily in a different way this year, we can all be inspired by the spirit of the people of Italy in confronting the grave challenge of the Corona virus. Lá Fhéile Pádraig Sona Dhaoibh Go Léir!”

And so we too wish a happy St Patrick's Day to everyone, near and far, real and virtual, in Italy, Ireland and around the world. See you all next year.


Andy Devane
Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia
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Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia