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NICHOLAS MERCER: Ireland expat has a fondness for Newfoundland’s green holiday

Noel O’Brien has been living in Corner Brook for the last five years. Originally from Waterford in southeast Ireland, O’Brien misses watching the horse races from
Noel O’Brien has been living in Corner Brook for the last five years. Originally from Waterford in southeast Ireland, O’Brien misses watching the horse races from - Nicholas Mercer

Noel O’Brien remembers his first St. Patrick’s Day in Corner Brook well. 

It was five years ago and he aimed to get his day started early.

As he was accustomed to in his hometown of Waterford, Ireland, O’Brien entered a local drinking in establishment early on that March 17 expecting to find the placed packed with celebrators and plenty of suds.

There was one problem though.

He was the only one there, aside from those working the bar.

Quietly, he wondered if he was in the right place to celebrate his nation’s patron saint. Turning to the bartender, the 43-year-old O’Brien asked where everyone one was.

It wasn’t anything like the St. Patrick’s Days he had at home.

There, St. Patrick’s Day is the one day of the year when you will see young children running around the pub.

It is a family thing and it is kind of what O’Brien expected here. They gather in the morning and have a traditional Irish breakfast and spend the entire day in the pub.

Things eventually got started at the bar O’Brien found himself in, but it was much later than he was accustomed to.

The people of Newfoundland and Labrador have a kinship with Ireland and its people. Being that many of its people have ancestors who arrived from Ireland, that kinship is well deserved.

It was that connection that brought O’Brien to Newfoundland for the first time. He came here on a holiday to see this land that was more Irish than Ireland and loved it so much, he decided to stay.

He got a job with a siding company and now is in school for occupational health and safety. In those early days, he would sometimes get confused by our affinity for calling everyone buddy.

On one work shift, he heard it at consecutive houses and thought he had met multiple people with the first name Buddy.

He remembers walking up Humber Road one day when a car stopped and offered him a ride up a steep hill. O’Brien was asked where he was from.

He told the man Waterford and that was the end of the conversation. The driver never spoke until they reached their destination.

It was then he learned the name of his hometown shares the name with our mental hospital. After that, he decided he would only say he was Ireland from now on.

Still, he found a place that connects him to his homeland and he loves it here.

And at no time is that connection observed more than on St. Patrick’s Day — St. Paddy’s for most of us — when we, as a province, try to outdo an entire country. 

Trips to the bars start early and don’t end till the early morning hours after the big day. People where as much green as they can find. There are green hats that look like beer mugs, there are green beer glasses and giant green bow ties, amongst other various items of the same colour.

In Ireland, those costumes are reserved for children during the annual St. Patrick’s Day parades. It is kind of like Christmas in a way. There are costumes, people gather in the street and the mayor is there.

Thinking back on St. Patrick’s Day, O’Brien holds a fond place in his heart for the horse races.

Starting on the Tuesday before St. Patrick’s Day, he and his mates would get to the pub to watch the Cheltenham races.

Taking place in England, the Cheltenham Festival annually pits the best English and Irish racing horses against each other.

From Tuesday until Friday, the men would head to the pubs to watch the races. They’d cheer wildly for the ones they’d bet on, using tips from any of their mates who might be working in the stables, and raise a few pints before heading home.

Some would take a week’s holiday for the week before St. Patrick’s Day for that reason. It served as the opener for the week.

“I think I miss the races the most,” said O’Brien.

A day or two before his opening St. Patrick’s miscalculation, O’Brien entered one of the local liqour store locations hoping to get a couple of cans of Guinness.

Being in a foreign city, he didn’t expect there to be a problem getting a hold of some of his country’s finest exports.

What he found was empty shelves and coolers where the famous Irish dry stout had been earlier in the week.

O’Brien discovered that day Newfoundlanders love to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day in the most Irish way possible. That means having the beer that everyone associates with the Emerald Isle readily available for the celebratory libations.

Still, O’Brien will still be front and centre Sunday and he will have on one of the special T-shirts he makes up every year. This year's version shows a glass of stout with the words 'Hello, Darkness My Old Friend, I've Come To Drink With You Again' wrapped around it.

“I kind of prefer it here,” said O’Brien of the holiday in his adopted home. “They celebrate it more here as St. Paddy’s Day.

“There is no green beer in Ireland.”

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