St. Patrick’s Day in the Klondike

The Irish always respected St. Patrick’s Day even out there in the wilds of the north. Even if his life depended on it, no man would do a stroke of work on that day. There was a fine spirit among all the men and no matter how much it discommoded them, they all behaved the same on that feast-day.

I well remember one St.Patrick’s morning that we were all out there and we had resolved the previous night that we would do no work next day. We were going to walk about five or six miles down the valley on a sort of pleasure trip. We knew there would be a big crowd of people in the village. All the miners were used to relaxing there. As well as those, there were wealthy men there who had made plenty of money and who had men working for them up in the hills. They had nothing to do but to go up now and again and see that the men were working away. And this village in the valley below us was the sort of common recreation place; and that’s where we had planned to spend St. Patrick’s Day.

As the day dawned, I got up to prepare some water and get the breakfast ready for my comrades when they woke up. In the winter out there, we always had to melt snow in order to get water. There was nothing to it except to get a fire going in the morning and step out for a can of snow to leave on the fire. In no time, there you had water. You had to keep filling the can if you wanted plenty of water. We used that water to wash ourselves, our pots, our clothes and suchlike but we had fresh water as well to use with our food. About two miles away was a source of water which was available every day of the year and despite the frost and snow it never froze. It shot up into the air as if it was being shot from a gun. We’d bring a barrel up and the full of the barrel would last us for a week or thereabouts.

But, as I was saying, I was out at the side of the cabin this St. Patrick’s morning filling a can with snow. As I stood there, suddenly I thought I heard pipe-music in the distance. At first I thought it was a dream but in a short while I heard it again. I straightened up then so as to hear it better but as luck had it, didn’t the piper stop playing as soon as I was in a position to listen properly. It was some time before he started up again but when he did he seemed to be closer and the music was clearer; and wasn’t the tune he was playing ‘St. Patrick’s Day’! I’d say that by then the piper was three or four miles away up in the hills behind us; there, then, was I, three thousand miles from home but, in the time it would take you to clap your hands, I fancied I was back again among my own people in Cloghaneely. My heart leaped up with so much joy that I was sure it was going to jump out of my breast altogether.

I ran back into the cabin and told my friends what was happening. They came out and when they heard the music, they were so overjoyed that one of them rushed around with the news to all the Irishmen in the neighbouring cabins. They too got up and when they also heard the pipe-music coming towards them they nearly went out of their minds. They went roaring and shouting around the place so much that you could hear the echoes coming back out of the mountains and valleys surrounding us. Everyone waited there until we felt the piper was coming near to us and then we all went out to meet him. Nobody was fully clothed and half of us hadn’t eaten at all but our blood was hot and despite the frost none of us felt the cold a bit! When we met him, we carried him shoulder-high for a good part of the way back. He was brought into our cabin and neither food nor drink was spared on him. And it was still early in the day.

When everyone was ready, he tuned his pipes and off we went four abreast after him like soldiers in full marching order. There wasn’t an Irish tune that we had ever heard that he didn’t play on the way down the valley. Crowds of people from other countries were working away on the side of the hill and they didn’t know from Adam what on earth was up with us marching off like that behind the piper. They thought we were off our heads altogether but we made it known to them that it was our very own day—the blessed feast-day of St. Patrick. On we marched until we came to the hotels and we went into the first big one that we met. Without exaggeration, I’d say that there were up to six hundred men there before us—men from all parts of the world. We were thirsty after the march and, though we hadn’t a bit of shamrock between us, we thought it no harm to keep up the old custom and to wet it as well as we were able.

We had a couple of drinks each and, as we relaxed, I stood up and asked the piper to tune up his pipes and play us ‘St. Patrick’s Day’ from one end of the house to the other. The word was hardly out of my mouth before he was on his feet…

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As night fell, we all gathered ourselves together again and set off up the hill along the way we had come until we reached our own cabins again. We were tired out and it wasn’t hard to make our beds that night. The piper spent the night with us and next morning he bade us farewell and went off to the back of the mountain where himself and two friends of his were working. A loyal good-natured Irishman, like thousands of others of his race, he left his bones stretched under frost and snow, far from his people, out in the backwoods, where none of his own kith would ever come to say a prayer for his soul. We heard that he had been killed in one of the shafts shortly after he had come to us to keep the Feast of St. Patrick with his music in All Gold Creek.

©: Michael MacGowan (Micí Mac Gabhann) Taken from his autobiography, The Hard Road to Klondike (‘Rotha Mór an tSaoil’), translated from the Irish by Valentine Iremonger, ©: Kegan Paul International, London and New York, 1962.

We are grateful to the publishers for permission to reproduce this excerpt.

Published in The Green Dragon No 7, Summer 1998

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