Man at His Best

Our Drink Columnist, Kurt Ganapathy, Goes Misty-Eyed For St Patrick’s Day

Less about chasing snakes out of Ireland and more on the “red-tongue dog”.

BY Kurt Ganapathy | Mar 17, 2017 | Food & Drink

Image by Guinness

When you’re a kid, you look forward to March for a break in the school year; well-earned respite from early mornings and reward for fumbling through your Continual Assessment. If you enlist for NS in December or January, March is the hallowed end point of your BMT; the month when you can start thinking about having a proper haircut again. But as the years roll on and they’re no longer punctuated by school holidays or block leave, months begin to blend into one another. March, then, becomes an uneventful part of the long stretch between Chinese New Year and Good Friday. That is until the first time you walk through Boat Quay around March 17 and see its walkways coloured by people wearing every shade of green.

In ten years, St Patrick’s Day has gone from a small get-together commemorated by expats to a full-blown week-long street party complete with mildly sacrilegious appearances by a guy in a St Patrick costume and more Cranberries and U2 covers than any sober person can stomach. There are some who call it a marketing stunt or lament the fact that our culture is somehow being corrupted by an “ang moh festival”, but there’s a saying you’ll find emblazoned on many a flamboyant hat and gaudy t-shirt: Everyone’s Irish on St Patrick’s Day. It is an inclusive celebration well worthy of the title of “friendliest day of the year”. Besides, Singapore’s connection to the Emerald Isle goes far beyond our time.

For one thing, Guinness has been drunk here since 1869, long enough to be given its own local nickname – Ang Ji Gao (Hokkien for the red-tongued wolf/dog that appears on labels of Guinness Foreign Extra). We’ve all heard stories of its dubious use as a health tonic when paired with raw eggs. St Patrick also lends his name to my (in)famous alma mater. Founded in 1933, St Patrick’s School has produced some of Singapore’s best-known entertainers, not forgetting a certain head prefect who went on to pursue a pretty successful career in politics. You know him better as President Tony Tan Keng Yam. Still, the connection goes further, back to the beginnings of modern Singapore.

When we think of Singapore's early years, we think of Raffles and Farquhar, but there is another significant figure who has mostly faded into history – an Irishman named George Drumgoole Coleman. Born in 1795 in the port town of Drogheda, Coleman arrived in Singapore by way of Calcutta and Batavia in 1822 and spent a good portion of the rest of his life here. In his roles as an architect, a surveyor and the Superintendent of Public Works, he helped shape the young settlement, designing bridges, government buildings, private homes and places of worship.

Coleman built North Bridge Road and South Bridge Road, constructed early incarnations of St Andrew’s Church (now Cathedral) and Singapore Institution (now Raffles Institution), and devised the iconic octagonal shape of the old Telok Ayer Market which lives on in its successor, Lau Pa Sat. While much of his work has since made way for development, Caldwell House (within present-day CHIJMES), Maxwell’s House (part of the Old Parliament House) and the Armenian Church of St Gregory the Illuminator remain as enduring examples of his contributions.

Coleman only went back to Europe once, marrying in London in 1842, but before long, he decided it was time to return to his adopted home. It was here that he died in 1844, and he was buried at Fort Canning in a spot that would have been a perfect vantage point on the growing colony. If you find yourself having a pint in the middle of March, it will in all likelihood be near Coleman Street and Coleman Bridge. The perfect time to raise a glass to saints, sinners and a lad from County Louth.