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St. Patrick’s Day mysteries

Linda Hennebury, landlady extraordinaire, behind the bar at the legendary Inn of Olde one of the best places to celebrate St. Patrick's Day in St. John's.

Did I go out and partake of a few St. Patrick’s Day drinks in downtown St. John’s Saturday night?

Well, yes.

Did some of those drinks involve a fellow by the name of Jameson?

Well, perhaps one or two (it was St. Patrick’s Day after all).

Am I going to write about any of that here?

Well, I haven’t decided. Downtown St. John’s, ever a party-happy place at the best of times, was riding an Emerald Isle rollercoaster all Saturday long, with the many Irish bars and pubs sporting line-ups as early as 8:30 a.m. For breakfast, obviously. Not beer (ahem).

Outside Shamrock City Irish pub on Water Street: Taxi drivers reported seeing line-ups around town as early as 8:30 a.m. (photo Turk Power)

So while I think about whether to share tales from my night of… complete decorum and restraint, I’ll take you on a bit of an Irish detour… a navigation you might say.

Although I’m from the UK, I have an Irish family connection to Newfoundland and Labrador that goes back about 1500 years. Yes. You read that correctly: 1500 years. Forget the Viking landing of a mere 1000 years ago; I’m taking history to the next level.

I’m half Irish. Both my maternal grandparents were born and raised near Tralee in County Kerry. They immigrated to London, England just before my mother was born, but the family, ever-homesick, would regularly leave behind the dark graft of the city and travel back to Ireland for a holiday at my grandmother’s childhood home, a farmhouse situated in the small village of Ardfert.

Upon the green and rambling property behind the house, there was an ancient holy well, and my grandmother’s family, the O’Connors, had been charged with guarding this mysterious font for as long as anyone could remember. There are lots of holy wells dotted across Ireland, most would have been pagan sacred sites before the onset of Christianity. This well was particularly famous because history has it St. Brendan was baptized there shortly after his birth in 484 A.D. (click here for info and pictures).

St. Brendan may not be St. Patrick, but he’s one of Ireland’s most important and revered saints, particularly famous for a mysterious voyage he took across the Atlantic Ocean in his latter years. If the stories hold true, it’s possible he was the first European to set foot on not only North America, but Newfoundland and Labrador, for that's exactly where he is thought to have landed.

A statue of St. Brendan the Navigator in Fenit, County Kerry, a few miles from Ardfert. He is gazing out over the Atlantic Ocean, pointing in the direction of Newfoundland and Labrador. My uncle Dennis is pointing alongside him.

Ancient Irish annals describe St. Brendan's encounters with “magical islands,” “floating pillars of crystal,” and even have it that he “breakfasted on the back of a whale.” That sounds pretty much like Newfoundland and Labrador to me. What? People here eat food on top of whales all the time. Whales are very curious and friendly and they swim under your boat and sometimes you get hungry and eat a sandwich. But if you need more convincing, just ask the people in the community of St. Brendan's, a tiny, (magical?!) island off Newfoundland’s east coast. If you threw a rock from Kerry, Ireland (and could pitch like Hercules), you'd hit it. If you’re still sceptical, then listen to this radio documentary by the award-winning Chris Brookes of Battery Radio, St. John’s. Actually, listen to it anyway, it’s excellent (warning: you may get distracted by the many other absorbing documentaries on this site and find you’ve lost a few hours).

My grandmother was buried in Ardfert a few years ago. At her funeral, the priest made a point of mentioning that she was the last of the original O’Connor’s, guardians of the holy well known as Wethers’ Well or Tobar na Molt where St. Brendan was baptized. Near the well, there is also a mound of earth called St. Ita's grave, where St. Brendan’s foster mother is said to lie. In years gone by, the ancient holy well attracted pilgrims from far and wide, and even today, people still travel there. My mum and her sisters bumped into some visiting Americans at the site years ago who asked to shake my grandmother’s hand. 

Aside from the beguiling mystery of St. Brendan, Newfoundland and Labrador has long had a deep Irish connection – and it’s a culture that endures here more so than anywhere in North America. The migrations to Newfoundland and Labrador, which began around 1675, represent the oldest and most persistent connections between Ireland and Canada. The Irish brogue is still incredibly strong in the varying accents throughout the province.

So it’s hardly surprising that Newfoundland and Labrador goes all out on St. Patrick’s Day. Indeed, it’s the only place in North America that recognizes the date as a public holiday.

Which I suppose, brings me back to my own St. Patrick’s Day shenanigans…

Let’s just say, I had a very, very fun night.

It began in the legendary Inn of Olde, in quaint Quidi Vidi Village, just outside downtown St, John’s, which as my friends and I noted, has an interior decorated by time itself.

While I was in the washroom I heard a wondering voice waft through the wall from the men’s side: “It’s like Lord of the Rings in here!” Upon ordering a drink, the kindly bar keep poured me another and one for himself, saying “There’s always one extra in Newfoundland.”

The night ended at The Rose and Thistle pub on Water Street, where we were serenaded by the beautiful lilts and rousing foot stompers of Colleen Power and Sherry Ryan, two renowned local singer/songwriters belting out the best of everything Irish. The place was stacked to the rafters (as was every Celtic pub in town), the audience one big wave of merriment, hailing St. Patrick and all things green.

And that’s all the information you’ll get from me on my St. Patrick’s Day celebrations. I’m holding my own Irish mysteries as close to my chest as the annals of time holds onto St. Brendan’s…