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St. Patrick’s Day in Buenos Aires
An Expression of Urban Folk Tradition

By María Inés Palleiro, Patricio Parente and Flora Delfino Kraft *

Translated by Annette Leahy


Theoretical considerations

In order to study the processes of traditionalisation and inversion of traditions in the urban sphere, we take as our focal point the specific case of St. Patrick’s Day in Buenos Aires in 2005 and its redefinition in 2006. We contextualise this event within the processes of the appropriation of public space connected to consumerism, which allow us to demonstrate the socio-cultural transformations which are currently taking place in Buenos Aires (Martín 2005), examined within the disciplinary field of folk-tradition.

Stained-glass window in St. Patrick's chapel at
Santa Lucía, district of San Pedro, 
province of Buenos Aires
(Edmundo Murray, January 2003)

We use the concept of ‘performance’ as defined by Richard Bauman (1975, 1986) in the sense of a form of aesthetically marked communication, carried out in a concrete socio-historical context and before an audience that assesses its communicative effectiveness. We consider the aforementioned celebration an event of folk-tradition performance, with certain aesthetic characteristics which will be analysed in this paper. We can characterise the traditional folk message as the spontaneous expression of a group’s differential identity (Bauman 1974), constructed as such by means of a contrasting comparison with other groups in a determined social context. [1] We emphasise the processual dimension of traditions (Fine 1989, Handler y Linnekin 1984), signifying a dynamic performance of the past undertaken in the present and, in this sense, we pay special attention to the ‘invention’ of tradition (Hobsbawn 1983), linked to the poetic reconstruction of historical subject matter (White 1988). Such a reconstruction, according to our hypothesis, relates to the act of redefining significance and symbols such as the emblematic figure of St. Patrick, in new contexts of expression.

With these theoretical bases, we compiled an archive of material relating to the celebration of St. Patrick’s Day, understanding archive in the etymological sense of arkhé or principle of organising the past and memory (Derrida, 1997). In putting together this archive, we adopted a genetic hypertextual focus (Palleiro 2004a 2004b) which proposes a means of ordering materials capable of reflecting its own process, leaving the marks of the dynamic of construction or genesis and its itineraries of circulation visible, similar to those of a virtual hypertext, which reflect the flexible connective structure of the processes of memory construction (Assmn 1997).

Starting with this archive, we proposed an analytical route through the main points of the history and legend in the medieval tradition, the immigrant communities of the American continent and the plural convergence of identities and memories in St. Patrick’s Day in Buenos Aires, as shown in the different areas of celebration: from religious services to street parties and Celtic festivals; the processes of the carnivalesque inversion and reversion of the canonical celebration in the street celebration; the marketing of the celebration in advertising discourse, and the comments on the event in the virtual fora of the internet. All these aspects, which we will briefly summarise in what follows, were approached in a more detailed manner in our research, which has been published.

A new contribution which we would like to outline in this paper, as a means of proposal for a diachronic study of the event in relation to the redefinition of Ireland’s patron saint’s day in the Argentine context, is to point out some of the transformations that have taken place in 2006, which correspond to the position adopted by Argentina’s Irish community regarding the events of 2005.

St. Patrick: history and legend in medieval tradition

Regarding the historical existence of the saint, we can situate his birth in the year 389 into the heart of a family of Welsh origin, and his life as a slave from the age of sixteen in Ireland until his escape to Italy by ship six years later. There he was ordained a priest, later returning to Ireland to evangelise on the island. His preaching and work as a priest continued up to his death on 17 March 464. Woodeene Koenig-Bricker (1996), author of 365 Saints: Your daily guide to the wisdom and wonder of their lives, presents the emblematic figure of St. Patrick as ‘someone whose life contains as much fiction as fact’. In the same way the religious literature faces us with the problem of the crossovers between fiction and reality, as emphasised in the historiography of Hayden White (1988) in his thoughts on the ‘poetics of history’, and by Roland Barthes (1970) in literary theory in his studies on ‘the illusion of reality’. This theme was one of the focal points of Palleiro’s doctoral thesis (1993), dedicated to the study of the methods of fictionalisation of historical context in traditional narrative discourse.

The character of the saint who, in his role as paradigmatic figure, legitimises the popular celebration in its articulation between history, fiction and legend, is one of the main aspects of our research. This problem leads us to consider his links to exemplary literature, tackled by Susan Suleiman (1977), among others, in her paper ‘History as example, and example as history’. For his part, the medievalist Welter (1927), in his work on exemplary literature in the Middle Ages, defines the enxemplo as an ‘account' or 'story', 'fable' or 'parable', 'anecdote' or account used to support a doctrinal, religious or moral statement. He thus emphasises the dependence of the enxemplo, as a type of discourse, in relation to doctrinal teachings, which can also be seen in our archive in the sermons of the liturgical celebrations of St. Patrick in Buenos Aires, where the story of the saint’s life is used as a pretext for preaching a doctrine. We therefore include, as part of our archive, different versions of the saint’s life taken from hagiographic writings, whose most distinctive feature is the intertextual framework between a written register and oral tradition. Such texts interweave fictional elements characteristic of legendary discourse – whose defining feature is a fictional elaboration of belief (Dégh y Vászonyi 1976)- with a canonical discourse which legitimises the figure of the saint as a paradigmatic model, composed of an emblematic concentration of ‘Christian virtue’. In the celebration of St. Patrick’s Day in Buenos Aires, this line of argument from exemplary literature will be taken up again in the sermons of the liturgical celebrations.

St. Patrick's church at 
San Antonio de Areco, 
province of Buenos Aires
(Edmundo Murray, January 2003)

The celebration of St. Patrick in the European context and its re-traditionalisation in America

Taking the concept of the ‘invention’ of traditions as a starting point (Hobsbawn 1983), concerning the processes of redefining elements of the traditional culture of certain groups in different contexts, we wish to emphasise the journey of St. Patrick’s Day celebrations from Europe to the American continent and its links to migratory movements. Due to spatial constraints, we will only mention the celebrations in Québec and Mexico City, by way of comparison with the celebrations in Ireland.

St. Patrick’s Day grew more important outside Ireland when Irish immigrants, as a minority group, faced the problem of differentiating themselves from other European ethnic groups with whom they shared a number of customs. In this way the celebrations acquired a value as a symbol of differential identity (Bauman 1974).

This is what happened in the Québec area where the English-speaking Irish found themselves in a unique linguistic context among the predominant French-speaking population and, as speaking English naturally distanced them from the majority, they did not feel the need to use the Gaelic language as an ethnic signifier (Schmitz 1991). Within its particular religious context, their Catholicism placed them in a subordinate position in relation to the dominant Protestantism of the English and Scottish. Nevertheless, the rapid recognition of the civil rights of the Francophone French population which followed the British conquest, the presence of Irish people in different social strata and their marriage to French people, were all factors that prevented the formation of a ghetto situation in Québec. Thus, with the passing of time, it was more and more difficult to proclaim a ‘purist’ ancestry among the numerous Irish, which allows us establish a certain parallel with the Irish community in Buenos Aires. Nowadays, the assimilation of the Irish has acquired a greater dynamism and St. Patrick’s Day has been incorporated into the ‘tradition’ of urban celebrations in the city of Québec, where anyone can be ‘Irish for a day’.

For its part, the celebration of St. Patrick’s Day in Mexico City appears on the internet’s virtual network as an ‘Irish party’ with a global dimension, in contrast to the deep-rooted local folk celebrations such as the Day of the Dead. The name of Ireland’s patron saint is used by an Irish battalion, the St. Patrick’s Battalion, as an emblem of the courage and heroism of a group of Irishmen, considered martyrs, who gave their lives for the Mexican cause during the North American invasion of 1847. In Argentina also, the saint was associated with Irishmen who took up arms and defended the nation, such as William Brown. In sum, the dynamic between local and global and the union of the patron saint of Ireland with emblems of nationality can also be seen in the celebration of St. Patrick’s Day in Buenos Aires in 2006, which is this article’s main point of interest, from the point of view of the analysis of the diachronic changes in regard to the celebrations in previous years, and tackling the specificities of this historical context.

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Copyright © Society for Irish Latin American Studies, 2007

Online published: 1 March 2007
Edited: 07 May 2009

Palleiro, María Inés, P. Parente and F. Delfino Kraft, '
St. Patrick's Day in Buenos Aires: An Expression of Urban Folk Tradition' in "Irish Migration Studies in Latin America" 5:1 (March 2007), pp. 35-46. Available online (www.irlandeses.org), accessed .


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