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In Manchester, St Patrick's Day is a marathon, not a sprint
‘I look at the English and they can't even tell me when Saint George's is. But they know when Saint Patrick's is’
By Jack Dulhanty
11:05 am at Mulligans of Deansgate, Manchester’s oldest Irish pub. Doors opened five minutes ago and every seat is taken. There’s 12 pints of Guinness on the bar — half full and resting — waiting to be topped up, served, cheersed, and drained. The bottom of each glass placed on the bar makes a satisfying billiard-ball pop. And it doesn’t stop. Did I mention it’s Saint Patrick’s Day?
A group of men dressed in skinny jeans and suede jackets annotate the racing pages of the Star. They initial the horses they’re backing with a bookie’s biro someone seems to have brought from home. On multiple TV screens, horses strain their giant necks in their stalls. Couples wear matching shirts covered in shamrock patterns and the buckled hats leprechauns wear. The musical backdrop is Spotify fiddles from here to County Clare.
People wear big top hats that look like pints of Guinness and take pictures of their pints of Guinness. Bartenders pour them two at a time, then pass them to another bartender who distributes them to customers. Saint Patrick’s Day might be a religious holiday, but it’s hard to shake the feeling there is only one true God here.
I order a Guinness and manage to find somewhere to lean. It’s still early and everyone looks to be settling into a day of drinking. The Guinness photography cannot be overstated. I see one guy line up six glasses, arranged in a pattern of full, half full, full, half full and so on. He takes more pictures than I’ve seen people take of babies or puppies. He looks genuinely overjoyed.
“I personally find it quite funny,” says Kevin-Barry Murtagh, who was born in Dublin and has pride of place in Mulligan’s: a little private booth next to the bar with its own service hatch. It is the spot we all crave. “I look at the English and they can't even tell me when Saint George's is. But they know when Saint Patrick's is. I think: Jesus, Mary and Joseph, they don't even know their own identity. But they're happy to go out on the lash with us, and we're happy to have them.”
Maybe it’s worth saying here that I was assigned this story because my surname is Dulhanty and my hair is red. Dulhanty is one of the rarer Irish names. It’s an anglicisation of O'Dulchaointigh, a name derived from the Old Gaelic words for “plaintive satirist”, as it goes. So my name suggests I’m the descendent of miserable people who liked taking the piss out of things. If I were to introduce you to my dad, you’d see this checks out.
At any rate, there was an assumption amongst The Mill’s editorship that I would have an extensive pool of Irish family members from which I could draw crystalline insight into Irish identity. I don’t. In fact, not one member of my living family was born in Ireland, but we know our ancestors came here from Kilkenny in the 19th century.
So, I ask Murtagh. “Being Irish means independence. It means we can live our own lives. That's what it means. A proud, small nation that took control of its own destiny. It doesn't go away, it never goes away.” Murtagh’s father was a navvy — “he dug holes for a living” — and died when Murtagh was two, after a trench fell in on him. He named his sons after members of the 1916 Easter Uprising. Kevin Barry, Murtagh’s namesake, was an 18-year-old who was hanged by the British government for his role in attacks against British supply vehicles.
Murtagh is a barrister, and has told his clerk to pretty much leave him alone for the day. He celebrates every Saint Patrick’s Day, usually with his brother. But today his brother is stuck in traffic coming up from London. Murtagh seems unperturbed: “this is the first year since we were 16 that we haven't been out for a pint together for Saint Patrick’s. But it's alright, I'll have one for him.”
It’s about 1pm on the top floor of Fiddlers Green, an Irish pub in Levenshulme that has been open four decades. Joe McGrath turns from watching the roiling crowd on the ground floor: “okay, who are we backing?”
“Ballyadam,” answers Daryll. “Yeah, Ballyadam.”
Sitting on a low-slung, utterly battered couch with a pint of Guinness between my knees, I watch Ballyadam, a horse, come fifth through the wood spindles of the balcony. Joe says something about betting sometimes being about losing, and Darryl nods at his cider. Joe’s grandma, Una, really did love Fiddlers Green. She came to Manchester from Tipperary in the early ‘60s and would have come to Fiddlers back when it was still called Dicey Reilly’s.
But this year it’ll close, making this its last Saint Patrick’s Day. Before the evening even really begins, the place is too full to let anyone else in. The bar is an island in a sea of bodies crushing up against it. In the booths along the back wall, grandfathers and grandmas sit in crisp blazers with big lapels or green knit jumpers and patterned dresses, whispering to one another and giving a thumbs up to their kids at the bar, who are giving the universal hand signal for “a drink?”
“We lived like a lot of Irish people did, and still do in this country, very much in this kind of Irish world,” says Bernadette Hyland, who I spoke to on the phone on the eve of St Patrick’s Day. Hyland grew up in Clayton, East Manchester, and was a member of the Irish in Britain Representation Group’s Manchester branch. “We went to Irish schools in Manchester, and we learned our history.”
There’s a feeling that Manchester’s Irish population has, with time, become less pronounced. “While many people still emigrate from Ireland” says Hyland “you don’t have those same big influxes of Irish people.” Many returned after the Good Friday Agreement, which brought more investment into the country and improved what, before, was a dire lack of jobs. And, of course, generations passed. Those who came from Ireland were replaced by their children born in Manchester. Although, I notice when speaking to Hyland, she still talks about Ireland not as a place to go, but to return to.
I’m squeezing through the crowd at the bar, making for the exit, and it’s beginning to feel more like swimming. The sun is falling through the windows in shreds, and an old man in a glittery green hat smiles at me and laughs as I try to get out. Outside, Joe and Darryl, the latter now looking really quite peaky, are looking up at the sun with their eyes closed. We head a few doors down to The Union, on Stockport Road, where there’s about to be live music.
The Union is the Saint Patrick’s Day heart of darkness. Emerald streamers hang from the walls and there are red-headed leprechauns pinned here and there. In one room, uneven shamrocks have been hand-painted on the floor. There’s also big leprechaun teddies stuck on to the wall like hunting trophies. We go and sit in the beer garden, where the air is whipped with cigarette smoke and Darryl stares into the middle distance.
Joe, from Manchester, and Daryll, from Fermanagh, have been firm friends for many decades. They grew up together, and always get together on Saint Patrick’s. “This is like his Champions League final,” Joe says of Daryll. They meet early to have an Irish fry (that’s basically a full English but with black pudding, white pudding and soda bread) and a Guinness at the Koffee Pot, then they drink.
In the beer garden, an old acquaintance of Joe’s appears in a Guinness hat. His eyes look to have sunk deeper into his sockets. He went out to watch United the day before and hasn’t slept since — “well, maybe I’ve done some very long blinks” — and he has been doing what sounds like copious amounts of drugs. “Feel like my nose has been fingered by Edward Scissorhands.” He goes back inside. A horse crosses a finish line somewhere, and a chorus of anguished screams come from the bar.
We follow the screams, like descending into hell. “I’m getting my second wind now,” Daryll says, not very convincingly. Behind him, someone plays “Piano Man” by Billy Joel on the fiddle. The Union is full now, and Daryll’s mates at Mulligans are texting him to say that’s full too, they can’t fit anyone else in. A snap strategy meeting ensues and he and Joe decide on St Kent’s Irish Club, in Fallowfield. “It’s where, like, every wedding, funeral, birthday — anything — was held when we were kids,” says Joe. They order an Uber, and I watch them draw themselves to their full height and breathe deeply while they wait for it. They’ve forgotten their Guinness hats.