Wednesday, March 14, 2012
Everyone knows something about St. Patrick. He drove all the snakes out of Ireland. He used the shamrock to teach the Holy Trinity to the Irish. He started each day with “Top o’ the mornin’!” and gave beer its own holiday.
Like most great men of hard times long ago, his legend has grown to a level of parody, and the myths of his deeds far exceed rational ability.
St. Patrick was in reality not Irish, but Welsh.
He was kidnapped by Irish brigands raiding Wales and sold into slavery in Ireland.
Years later he escaped and returned home, became a bishop and returned to the island of his imprisonment to teach the Irish heathens Christianity.
Once the British decided that the Irish weren’t capable of running Ireland, they took over the country and banned all things Irish including the language, customs and even the wearing of the color green.
St. Patrick, who was eventually honored as the patron saint of Catholic Ireland, became something of a loophole, for when a day of recognition was requested, it was political suicide to deny a people the right to celebrate their transition from paganism to Christianity.
After all, he was born British and therefore established an illusion of superiority over the common Irish.
A royal exception to cultural recognition was granted this one day a year.
St. Patrick’s Day also became the one day that the church would officially lift the Lenten restrictions, which for the culture that invented beer and whiskey was more than reason enough to celebrate.
Out of a strong desire for a reclamation of a national identity and the rare matter that both the Catholic Church and the British government separately agreed upon, St. Patrick’s Day was born with a bit of Irish diplomacy.
Some of my earliest memories as a child in Ireland are of my grandfather Barney observing the celebration of St. Patrick here in the U.S.
He’d comment, “What are they on about? Do they know nothing of Irish history? We’ve been starved to death, kicked out of our own country for sheep, suffered every blight, famine and disaster there is, yet one day a year everyone there wants to be Irish?”
According to that strapping mountain of a man, the true definition of Irish luck was, “Ya just stepped inta the sheep’s mess instead of the pothole.” In other words, Irish never have brilliant luck, but it could always be worse.
Barney’s uncle, James O’Mara, a member of Parliament from Kilkenny South, had successfully spearheaded the bill making St. Patrick’s Day an Irish national holiday in the early 1900s. St. Patrick’s Day held a special spot of pride for the man. He would always revert to a child waiting for Father Christmas in the early days of March.
I moved to America in my youth with the echoes of Barney always in my mind. The first few years of observing St. Patrick’s Day on this side of the pond was a sight indeed. Green beer, an odd pinching ritual and plenty of paper and plastic leprechauns to go around. Rivers were being died green for some reason and everyone seemed to be (poorly) mimicking Chief O’Hara from the 1960s Batman television series.
I often thought to myself, “Why people?” Why all the green here in the States? What do Americans have in way of purpose for celebrating Irish pride?
It turns out plenty. The music to “The Star Spangled Banner” was written by the blind Irish harpist, Turlough O’Carolan. Eight of the original signers of the Declaration of Independence were Irish. The first American general to die in the Revolutionary War was Richard Montgomery from Donegal. The White House was designed by Irish architect James Hoban of Co. Kilkenny.
The earliest pioneers of America’s frontiers were taught to build log cabins by the Irish and the Scots. The Irish have produced eight Supreme Court justices, and no less than 23 U.S. presidents can trace their Irish ancestry. The railroad barons, building contractors and police forces that brought this country from her infancy to the thriving land she is today would not have succeeded without Irish immigrants.
The Irish heart brought passion and smiles to America’s budding entertainment industry. The Oscar was designed by Cedric Gibbons of Dublin, and who could imagine young Hollywood without John Ford or John Huston in a director’s chair? Walt Disney was especially proud of his Irish heritage. Today the names of award-winning Irish actors and musicians top everyone’s favorites list.
There are more Americans of Irish origin today than there are Irish in Ireland. The Great American Melting Pot, it seems, was given a unique Gaelic heartiness.
When I raise a glass this year to dear St. Patrick and the magical isle of my birth, the question of why America celebrates St. Patrick’s Day will be far from my thoughts.