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Madness in Melaque Saint Patrick’s Day Mexican Style.
by Helen Paris Riemer
Beside me a man starts burning. He shouts, and the crowd surges toward him, shrieking laughter, the nearest beating his head with loose open hands. The acrid smell of scorched hair drifts to where I cower by the bandstand. He is quickly extinguished and they turn back, clutching each other, ducking behind trees, hiding behind neighbours, waiting in gleeful terror for the next flaming missile. Welcome to Melaque/San Patricio, home of the best darn Saint Patrick’s Day festival you'll ever see.
It might seem odd for an Irish holiday to be celebrated in Mexico, but this
fishing village on the Pacific coast, just a few hundred miles south of Puerto Vallarta, has a historical prerogative to do so. The town is an amalgamation of three pueblos, Villa Obregon, Melaque, and San Patricio. These pueblos grew from estates owned by Irish soldiers from Saint Patrick’s Battalion, a military unit that fought as part of the Mexican Army, against the United States, in the Mexican-American War of 1846 to 1848. Though they were despised in America as traitors, Mexico holds these Catholic helpers in high esteem.
And, on Saint Patrick’s day, Melaque does the Irish proud.
The highlight is always the lighting of the Castillo, which bristles with
fireworks - Mexican fireworks - including the kind that are expected to set people on fire, the kind that are banned pretty much everywhere else in the country, but not here.
The Castillo is a fragile sculpture made of thin strips of light wood, with many moving parts. It’s long and narrow, like a chimney stack, and when it first appears, in front of the church, it is lying on its side on a pivot.
If you get close you can see the delicate fuse lines, like string, running from one to the next of many thumb size paper cylinders. The bigger ones are the notorious ‘busca pies’, and these make all the difference.
The jardin fills; moms and dads sit on benches, kids break confetti eggs on each others noggins, couples and singles stroll the jardin circle. Blatting
horns toot from the bandstand. Dusk turns to darkness as the numbers increase.
The Castillero moves the structure into place, to the middle of the cobbled
road that separates the church and the jardin (the town square). He and his helpers tilt the castillo up so that it is standing, and lock it into position. Small boys find cardboard boxes, undo them, flatten them out, run around holding the big pieces over their heads; this will be their shield and they will be brave, right under the conflagration.
I slip into a crowd on the grass by a tree, between the bandstand and the
Castillo, heart thumping, nerves jumping, adrenaline making my scalp tingle, wondering when it’s going to start. Eric is calm. He hasn’t seen this before, it’s easy for him. He stands on the pavement, not joining me, wondering why I am already ducking…
For the entire week of the fiesta of San Patricio, Melaque thrums with activity. Costumed and beribboned school kids dance at the small beach amphitheatre, proud mamas on plastic chairs in the sand. The bullring throws open its wickets and doors and swirls with rodeos and costumed singers. Rides and sideshow games take over the block adjacent to the jardin. People crowd around the target practice. Ten pesos ($1) rents a pellet gun with ten pellets inserted - ten chances to knock over the small tin figures lined up on thin metal racks - if you’re really good you aim at the small nails standing on their heads, set off the mechanical gorilla in a black barred cage that roars and dances when its button is hit. On March 17, the day of the big parade, every school, every class, anyone of any importance, is costumed and waving gaily from decorated cars and trucks, brass bands hooting and banging behind them, the occasional gringo ex pat thrown in just because they are there.
And every night the castillos. As the flame runs up the fuse lines, pinwheels of bamboo light up and start turning, spinning faster and faster as they burn. Roosters open up, fireworks whistle and hiss. Sparks and bits fly off, falling to where the young boys wait, batting at the burning chunks with their cardboard shields. The whistling gets louder and Busca Pies start flying off, twirling through the air in flaming spirals as the screaming rockets head into the crowd. We shriek, we run; in the smoke and the madness we can’t see where they are headed.
The grand finale is the Corona (the crown) at the very top of the Castillo structure. As it lights it too starts turning, faster and faster, until it
is a white whistling circle. Then it lifts, leaving the Castillo behind. It it rises higher and higher into the night sky as all heads tip back to watch. Finally, glowing ashes float back down to the now quiet jardin. The crowd, well sated, slap each other on the back and disperse.
Eric is elated, babbling with excitement. “That was amazing!” He hollers, “I think one of those things nicked me!” He moves under a streetlight and looks down at his groin. Our mouths drop. There is black impact mark on the left inner thigh of his jeans, a scorched trail runs up his crotch and down the other inner thigh. Our eyes meet over the burnt denim. Don’t wear shorts.
Photo Credits: Helen Paris Riemer
Wed, Mar 22, 2017
The Galway Hooker
This unique vessel, with its distinctive curved lines and bright red sails, originated in the village of Claddagh. During the 19th century, hookers supported a significant fishing industry and also carried goods, livestock and fuel. Seán Rainey is remembered for building the last of the original boats, the Truelight, for Martin Oliver who was to become the last king of the Claddagh; as king, he was entitled to white sails on his boat. Since the mid seventies, many of the old sailing craft which were on the verge of extinction have been lovingly restored and new ones have been built. During the summer months they can be seen at festivals such a Cruinniú na mBád - the Gathering of the Boats - in Kinvara.
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