Living’s Irish drinks expert, Don Kavanagh gets into the St Paddy's Day spirit

No one really knows who he was, where he came from or where he ended up, but St Patrick seems to have a firm hold on the public imagination, as thousands climb on board the green bandwagon to celebrate Irishness today, March 17.

Patrick is a bit of a mystery; the man who is being supposedly celebrated is shrouded in legend, which can mean he was made up. He wasn't Irish - he could have been Welsh, Roman or from northwest England; there is no historical record of him being kidnapped by slavers and there were never any snakes for him to banish from Ireland. Even the myth of his use of the shamrock to explain the idea of the Trinity first appeared in the 1700s.

And if Patrick is a mystery, then how the celebrations of his lonely mission to bring Christianity to the heathen Irish morphed into a wild bacchanalian version of Sodom and Begorrah is a riddle wrapped in an enigma.

For starters, St Patrick's Day celebrations didn't really originate in Ireland. The first parade was in Boston and it was in America that the whole green-beer-drinking, flag-waving, silly-hat-wearing palaver really took root. Other destinations for the Irish diaspora followed suit and eventually you had a situation where a great time was being had for the sake of Ireland pretty much everywhere except Ireland.


Even as recently as the 1970s, the day itself was a religious holiday in Ireland, with a day off work in the Republic and not even that in Northern Ireland. I recall no parades until the Guinness marketing team got on board in the 80s and 90s, turning a day previously unremarkable into a cracking day out, a move that still remains one of the great cultural masterstrokes.

Because, these days, St Patrick's Day brings out the best of Ireland, even if that best is often something that exists only in nebulous concepts like "the crack". That word is usually spelt "craic" these days in an effort to make it sound like an Irish construction, rather than a usage common to Northern England, Scotland and Wales as well as the Irish.

It celebrates the simple pleasures of life, such as getting together over a few drinks, listening to music, and telling short stories and tall tales. It's a fantastic day and night out, regardless of whether you're recently arrived here from the limping remains of a once-roaring tiger economy or are celebrating an Irishness that stretches only as far as the fact that your partner's mum's dog's girlfriend's owner once heard a Chieftains song on the radio.

As an Irishman, I'm occasionally ambivalent about St Patrick's Day. It's not something I've ever sat down and thought about too deeply, partly because the Irish don't tend to be great on self-analysis (we don't think we're great and that everyone loves us - we know it deep in our hearts) and partly because I'm too busy enjoying the day.

The usual order of battle for the big day is to start with a Full Irish breakfast. This involves bacon, sausages, eggs, black pudding, white pudding, tomatoes, fried potatoes, fried bread and optional mushrooms and beans. The alternative is the Irish mixed grill, a combination of boiled spuds, mashed spuds, fried spuds, chips and hash browns.

If you survive that, then it's customary to slowly ease yourself into things with a couple of quiet pints, followed by some slightly louder pints and a sudden urge to dance badly with green-clad strangers. By this stage, a band is usually showing off its grasp of Irish music by playing a set consisting of three Pogues songs, two U2 songs and Van Morrison's Brown Eyed Girl. This is one of the great constants of St Patrick's Day, but thankfully it doesn't last long and the band will return to playing Dudes and Nirvana covers shortly thereafter.

Now you will notice you are surrounded by people wearing green shirts, hats, shoes and occasionally hair. They may have temporary tattoos celebrating beer and whiskey brands and they will almost definitely be sporting a badge with the legend "Kiss Me, I'm Irish".

If they're wearing one of those, you can bet the mortgage on the fact that they are not Irish. If they say "Top of the mornin' to ya" in an exaggeratedly uncultured brogue then you can be sure they haven't even met an Irish person, because no one uses that phrase in Ireland and the Irish remain mystified as to how such a gruesome phrase became associated with an island that has won four Nobel prizes for literature.

It's enough to drive you on to the whiskey, which tends to be liberally and cordially squandered, as people finally get the chance to ask a barmaid "Have you got a Redbreast?" without risking a slap.

After this, things tend to continue pretty much in a continual loop until prudence, penury or poor health finally force you home.

If you don't fancy trying to carve a path through thousands of hearty revellers, you could have a little celebration at home. Dig out some Irish music, whack some beef stock, vegetables and a scrag end of mutton into a slow cooker for six hours and serve your resulting stew with soda bread. If you don't know how to make soda bread, here's my mother's recipe. She'd kill me for sharing, but since she doesn't get the Herald on Sunday, I reckon I'll be safe enough.

Mrs Kavanagh's Soda Bread

• 500g self-raising flour
• Good pinch of salt

1. Mix together by hand to get the air into it and add enough buttermilk to get it wet, without being sloppy. Don't work the dough too much, five minutes is ample.

2. Form into a roughly circular cake. Cut a cross in the top and prick each quarter with a fork.

3. Bung it in the oven for about 40 minutes at 200C.

Voila - a perfect loaf if Irish soda bread. For a lovely brown version, use 500g of plain flour, 350g of wheaten meal, oats or bran and two heaped teaspoons of baking soda and a teaspoon of salt.

Wash all this down with some decent beer, or try a black velvet - Guinness and Champagne.

Out and about today
The good thing about St Patrick's Day is that it's easy to find. Pretty much every bar will be doing something for it and there are so many "Irish" pubs around the place that you won't be too far from one wherever you are.

There will be revelry, music, dancing and drinking, so even if you don't know where the bar is, you should be able to simply follow the sound of someone bellowing Dirty Old Town into a microphone.

From experience, I'd advise getting up early to go to the Irish bars, as they will be packed from lunchtime onwards. I once queued for 20 minutes outside O'Hagan's just to get to the back of the even longer queue for the bar.

If you're in town, drop into the Shakespeare Tavern, where the brewer has come up with a special beer in honour of the day. Alternatively, you could head to the Grey Lynn RSA and catch a band with the most contrived "Irish" name in history, the Thieving O'Gypsy Bastards.

In the normal course of events, I'd end up in the welcoming surrounds of the Clare Inn, with a pint in one hand and a Powers whiskey in front of me.

Despite everything I've written above, it's not just about the pubs. There is a genuine cultural element to the festivities as well, including the centrepiece event, the Hugh Green group-sponsored parade down Queen St.

This is a great event with a great atmosphere and has the advantage of being family-friendly. It kicks off at 11am and features floats, bands, dancers, marchers and every possible combination of flutes, fiddles and harps you could imagine. It is a hugely popular event, so it's best to get there early for a decent spot.

The parade leads on to the Fleadh (pronounced Flaah) at Queen's Wharf. This feast of Irish culture starts at noon and offers the chance to get a taste of the musical flavours of Ireland.

If you fancy a trip out east to avoid the carnage in town, Howick Historical Village is hosting All Things Irish, a nice blend of music, legends, superstitions and food from the Island of Saints and Scholars. It costs $38 for a family of four and starts at 10am. See for more details.

This article wouldn't be complete without further mention of whiskey, which originated in Ireland, despite what the Scots might claim. Once the rigours of the day have been recovered from, the Whisky Shop in Elliott Stables is hosting a competitive tasting between a line-up of Irish whiskeys and their New Zealand counterparts. I'm pretty confident that this will be the first time in ages that Ireland has beaten New Zealand in any serious competition, so if you're interested in whiskey or simply want the chance to see the Irish finally down the all Blacks, contact for more details.

So there you go, your guide to enjoying/surviving St Patrick's Day. Remember that it's a fun day out so go easy and you should be fine.

I'll be doing my best to enjoy the Powers and the passion, but since I'll be stuck on a plane for most of it, I can't see myself dancing too much. That said, if they're serving Powers on the plane, that could change. Slinte.