Table of Contents


Contact Information

St. Patrick’s Day in Buenos Aires: An Expression of Urban Folk Tradition
By María Inés Palleiro, Patricio Parente and Flora Delfino Kraft


Stained-glass window in St. Patrick's altar at Luján Basilica, province of Buenos Aires, donated by Margarita Morgan (née Mooney) in 1896
(Edmundo Murray, January 2003)

The liturgical celebration of the patron saint of Ireland in Argentina

In the context of Buenos Aires, the liturgical celebration of St. Patrick’s Day is seen by its participants as a festival for the Catholic community and particularly the Irish Catholic community. This event is organised around a sequence of religious practices, and has a special place within the canonical calendar, where the saints are remembered systematically each year on the day of their death in accordance with a canon legitimised by the ecclesiastical institution (Le Goff 1996). This context of a religious service shares characteristics with other commemorations; among which we find the performance of a past fact in the here and now which simultaneously generates a re-elaboration of its meaning in the present. In this communicative performance, the participants consider the celebrant a symbol of the ecclesiastical institution in the role of the authorised performer and legitimate narrator of a story, whose clothing and intonation, and the very ornamentation of the temple favour the reception of a message which attempts to achieve the audience’s support in terms of belief (Birge-Vitz 1987). This allows for a narrative composed like a sermon which, on the one hand, is similar to mythic discourse in so far as it suspends temporality (Eliade 1968) and represents the patron saint as a divine mediator (Baños Vallejo 1989), and on the other hand, emphasises the historical dimension of the saint’s life as an effective tool for the celebrant to achieve an ‘effect of reality’ in the canonical narration. In this way, the mythical and historical anchoring of the saint’s life-story acquires the paradigmatic value of an exemplary life at the service of religious doctrinal teaching which expresses the ethical precepts of the group of participants (Welter op. cit.).

Another of the characteristics of this event is shown in the liturgical performance in St. Patrick’s church in Belgrano, where we noted the entrance of the celebrants accompanied by the Papal, Irish and Argentine flags, demonstrating the convergence of religious symbolism with emblems of ethnicity. This convergence was reflected in the allusions made by the celebrant Fr. Eugenio Lynch, in the following terms: ‘...thinking about the patron saint of Ireland... about when he was a child... about shamrocks... the Holy Trinity... symbols which marked my childhood... symbols of St. Patrick, of Ireland and Argentina... St. Patrick... a young man who was a slave... who left his life to be a missionary... Sometimes we lose the value... of symbols, of flags... and we are caught up in the symbols of commerce...’ Also in the celebration, the figure of St. Patrick was linked to ethnic emblems as collective processes of identity construction, as set forth by the celebrant of the Church of Santa Cruz in the question: ‘Did Ireland save the culture of a large part of Europe? An important question…’

The faithful approach a statue of St. Patrick 
during a Roman Catholic celebration
(EPIF Photo Archive, 20 March 2005).

Finally, in the liturgical sermon as well as in the interviews with the different participants in the parish hall that took place at a later date, the existence of the street parties identified with media and commercial interests was mentioned. One of the participants observed that: ‘We do not like the street parties very much... because the religious significance is lost’, while another young woman asserted ‘The street parties... as long as the idea of celebrating the saint is maintained, that’s fine, but getting drunk, no...’

The surveys carried out in the rural context of San Antonio de Areco (Province of Buenos Aires) demonstrate the same contrast between the Festival of San Antonio de Areco, closely linked to the liturgical celebrations and the Irish traditions, with the excesses attributed to the ‘street’ celebrations in the city of Buenos Aires. Furthermore, however, the traditional Irish contribution is emphatically linked to the local criollista tradition, as exemplified in the relationship established by the parish priest and Irish descendants between St. Patrick and figures like William Brown, the gauchista author Ricardo Güiraldes and, in the present day, the historian and journalist Pacho O’Donnell, as models of ethnic identity.

In short, these social actors, both urban and rural, refer to the figure of St. Patrick as a marker of a differential identity which concentrates religious, national and ethnic symbols in the context of a form of celebration situated in reduced spheres. We will now consider these festive forms and their comparison to Celtic festivals and street celebrations.

St. Patrick and the Celtic festivals

The ‘Celtic Festival of St. Patrick’ which was held on 18 March 2005 in the Auditorio theatre in Belgrano demonstrates the celebration of St. Patrick as a show destined for a wider audience. In this sense, the performance took the form of a Celtic music and dance show, which included Galician as well as Irish repertoires courtesy of the groups Celtic Argentina, O’Connor Celtic Band, Na Fianna and El bolsón de Frodo.

Without pausing to analyse these events, which we will leave for a future paper, it is worth mentioning how the category Celtic has opened up to include Galician as well as Irish, and the mention of the paradigmatic figure of St. Patrick in the festival’s leaflets and programmes, which note his biographical information, emphasise his role as saint, priest, missionary and Ireland’s evangelist (‘...he travelled to Ireland to carry Christ’s word’), emphasise the legendary aspects of his character (‘legend has it that... he banished the snakes from Ireland, which fled to the sea and drowned’) and the symbols associated with his figure, such as the shamrock and the Celtic cross. Such symbols gave rise to the widespread marketing of icons such as shamrocks, leprechauns, Celtic crosses, stickers of the saint, hats, T-shirts with the shamrock icon, all of which formed part of a ‘Celtic-Expo’ which happened at the same time as the festival, in which the selling of beer and typical Irish and Galician food were also a feature. It is worth highlighting in this respect that Isenbeck was sponsoring the event, and advertised its beer in the festival’s programme.

Ceolraidh choir at the Celtic Festival
(Auditorio de Belgrano, 11 September 2004)

In interviews carried out with two groups of young people between 20 and 22 years old and a couple aged 52 and 57 attending the festival, they claimed to be ‘followers of the Celtic vibe’. They declared that their attendance at the festival was due to their love of music and dance and the possibility of buying crafts. When asked if they had known about the figure of St. Patrick before, they responded negatively and referred back to the information received at the festival, at which his biography was read aloud by a voice ‘off-stage’. A group of young girls said that they thought it was good that the Irish community celebrated their festival and, also, that their was an element of cultural exchange; but that, to be on equal terms, ‘we Argentines should preserve and spread our traditions.’ A young musician offered a very interesting opinion: he said that he did not like the festival taking root in Argentina, because of the way in which it simplified and trivialised Celtic culture, reducing it to ‘the little leprechauns and the little shamrock’ and used the music as an example, defining it as ‘a mix of arrangements from various musical styles, because original Irish music would not be very attractive to modern listeners’. The older couple felt that the celebration of St. Patrick’s Day in Argentina was simply a trend that would soon pass, as they all do.

In summary, in these festivals the figure of St. Patrick was a pretext in order to enjoy a music and dance show of diverse origins concentrated around the ‘Celtic’ signifier, and for merchandising characterised by this same heterogeneity, which even included the sale of traditional Argentine crafts, together with crafts advertised as ‘Irish’ and, in a much smaller number, Galician, accompanied by the sale of food and beer from the sponsorship company, with a consumption level that did not reach the excesses that marked the street celebrations.

In 2006, ‘The Great Celtic Festival of St. Patrick’ held in the Auditorio theatre in Belgrano, the repertoire of which comprised ‘Celtic’ music and dance performed by Argentine groups like Celtic Argentina, Na Fianna, Shiga Draoi and others, restricted the sale of beer during the intervals to purely ‘home-brewed’, more expensive than industrial brands like Quilmes or Isenbeck, and resulting in the reduced consumption of this alcoholic beverage by the attending public. This is a clear example of the re-appropriation of the ‘rhetoric of control’ of the previous year’s media debate which we will examine in what follows.

San Martín street in Buenos Aires, 17 March 2005

The street celebrations: a diverse crowd

On 17 March 2005, some streets in the Retiro area of the city of Buenos Aires were the stage for a crowded celebration organised by the group of bars and breweries and the Government of Buenos Aires, which set the scene for a performance with its own meaning (Parente 2006). In the past four or five years these celebrations have redefined their exclusivity in order to attract tens of thousands of people, the majority of whom have no connection to the migrant group, and who consume large quantities of beer. Using first-hand observation as a means of surveying, we noticed that the party in Retiro mainly attracted the active participation of young people, the majority from a middle-class social group, particularly office staff who work in downtown Buenos Aires and who join in the celebration after finishing work.

In principle, this public celebration of the Irish saint can be considered as a kind of carnival similar to the public holidays of the Middle Ages with their burlesque and grotesque demonstrations far removed from the serious tone of religious services and official parish celebrations (Bajtín 1987). In the street parties we encounter a transformation from the ideal to the material and physical plane demonstrated by the behaviour of the attendees: excess, close physical contact, the euphoric behaviour of the participants channelled through shouting and jumping, and an uninhibited vocabulary full of elements associated with the satisfaction of bodily desires such as sex and drinking alcohol. In parallel, we could note the total freedom of alcohol consumption on the streets, the lack of official regulation with regards to the ban on cars in the streets, and the appropriation by individuals, as performers, of public space according to their specific needs and desires. A police officer who was on duty that night went so far as to affirm in a confidential tone that ‘anything goes here’.

The particular nuances of the celebrations in Buenos Aires are linked to the form that the contemporary attendance took, and its consequent redefinition of St. Patrick’s Day, which distinguish it as much from medieval public expressions as from the contexts of liturgical celebration. If the medieval public carnivals are considered as a spectacle felt and lived as something universal, by everyone and for everyone (Bakhtin op. cit.), the feeling of Irish belonging, shared and exalted in the celebration, disappeared in the street carnival, and the satisfaction of the crowd, and the expression of a specific social group to which the invitation was aimed, all of which seemed only to indicate a feeling of fleeting belonging born of their very attendance at the event, where the star attraction was beer. [2]


1 - 2 - 3 - 4


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 .


The Society for Irish Latin American Studies

 Copyright Information