Today’s is St. Patrick’s Day and the wearing of the green is imperative. I’m not sure about others, but the mere thought of green ketchup, let alone green beer, more or less makes me shudder. But today we’re all a bit Irish, so even though my heritage is a mixed bunch of northern Europeans not including Irish or Scots, I thought I’d explore my own Irish yearnings.
First, I tried to think of what I knew about St. Patrick himself. It turns out not much. Let me see, he was a Catholic saint who Christianized pagan Ireland and threw out all the snakes. I’ve never known what that meant, although I have read that Ireland truly does not have any indigenous snakes, which is not a bad thing in a country. I have this vision of St. Patrick picking up the snakes and tossing them, one by one, in the outgoing tide of the ocean. I don’t think that’s probably how he did it, if he did it. Perhaps because it is his saint’s day, there are quite interesting articles on the Internet about him, Ireland and the various traditions. Here’s one I read that I found quite fascinating: Did St. Patrick sell slaves to the Irish? In it, a Cambridge scholar posits the notion that St. Patrick was a slaveholder and a tax collector, or at least his family was. This seems quite different from the vague legends I’ve heard about him. In fact, I seem to have some awareness that he freed Irish slaves (a very good thing but one which, alas, did not last that long, from the little I know of Irish history).
So what else do I know about Ireland? Turns out I don’t know very much about the country either. I know it was originally settled by Celts, who created while they made Ireland their home rather wonderful stories of their origins and their gods and goddesses. I know that Ireland suffered raids from the Norse, who were originally, I think, some form of Anglo-Saxon or Germanic tribe who settled up in the frozen north somewhat later than the Celts moved into the British Isles. I know that Ireland became a Christian country (St. Patrick led the wave here, I believe), and for many years Ireland was considered far, far more scholarly and civilized than any other Christian country, even enlightened. Once England had been made Christian, there was apparently quite a lot of controversy between the two kinds of Catholicism, Irish and Roman, with the Roman Catholics eventually winning. And I know that at some time during the Middle Ages, the British kings and their armies ‘subdued’ Ireland, from which led all these hundreds of years of resistance on the part of the Irish. I put quotes around ‘subdued’ in the last sentence because the Irish (how strange) didn’t like being subdued and fought it from that day to this. Sometimes it seems, from what I’ve read or heard, that the island was colored more with red blood than green trees and bogs. My other knowledge of Ireland is fairly modern, having to do with the potato famine, the emigration of starving Irish to other countries, particularly the United States, and the ‘Troubles,’ which is a somewhat euphemistic term for many many years of fighting and tragedy that led eventually to the Free State of Ireland, the division with Northern Ireland (which felt more of a compatibility with Britain), the Sinn Fein, the IRA (and, I believe the IRA is an arm of the Sinn Fein, not the other way around), Michael Collins and all the stories of bombings and misery in the sixties, seventies, eighties and forward.
I know that Ireland is a beautiful island, green as chopped parsley, filled with bogs, cliffs, fields, forests, oaks and legends. The leprechaun with his pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Dagda, the good god, Brigid, the goddess of water and of fire, Rhiannon, the great queen, Epona, the goddess of the horse, Cerunnos, the antlered god, Macha and Nemain, the goddesses of war, all of the Tuatha de Denan. And one of the loveliest of heavens, the Tir Na Nog, the Land of Eternal Youth and Beauty, somewhere in the West.
And the gorgeous art, the lovely carved stones, the illuminated manuscripts. More recently, the lead crystal, the fisherman’s sweaters, the Irish linen, the Belleek china, the poetry and prose, the songs and tales, so much that is lovely. Writers such as (and this is only the recent ones) Oscar Wilde, Bernard Shaw, W. B. Yeats, Sean O’Casey and of course James Joyce, the writer of “Ulysses,” of which I can say without caveat that I have managed to read the first five pages. Several times. And music and dance that, even with very little of the Irish in my heritage, seems to call to me. Oh, one more legend I think I know is that whiskey was first distilled in Ireland. (Considering how melancholy much of their history is, perhaps this is not surprising.) Possibly Scotland would dispute that claim, but after all, in Scotland, it’s called ‘whisky’ anyway.
And all I know of the shamrock is that it exists, has three leaves (not four) and is a symbol of Ireland. Well, it’s certainly green, and I think it had something to do with St. Patrick, but that’s all.
It seems clear I have some researching to do. And maybe someday a trip to take. All my ‘knowledge’ of Ireland is anecdotal and vague and there is so much more to this country so rich in history and lore than I know. But today, we are all a bit Irish, and so I salute Ireland and its people, so staunch, so unwilling to be ‘subdued’, and its culture and life.
All except corned beef and cabbage. I can’t quite get my mind or heart around that.
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Thanks for the explanations! I could have looked all this stuff up myself, but where’s the fun in that? As for the caveat about being “a bit Irish” on the day, I understand what you’re saying. I think perhaps I might have explained a bit better that it was a kind of shorthand about all the things I respect about the Irish, their history and their art and their culture. I have, oddly enough, recently discovered in my intermittent forays into my ancestry, that I may indeed have an Irish ancestress or two. It seems my French forbears took a detour to Ireland after being tossed out of France (they were Huguenots) before emigrating to the US (before it was the US).
The three leaves of the shamrock are said to represent the Trinity. The Celts originally came from the area of Austria-Switzerland. The Norse are part of the Germanic families (as are their languages), but not Anglo-Norse. That happened only after they settled in Britain. Ireland is green, but has very little good farming land, hence the sheep & wool industry. Also the potato, since it will grow even in poor ground. There have never been indigenous snakes in Ireland; one theory is that St. Patrick was instrumental in ending Druidism, and Druid priests had dragons tatooed on their arms. Thus, “snakes.” I believe Patrick was actually a slave, originally from a well-do-do family.
And, alas, I may be one of the few people not of Irish origin who does not consider herself to be Irish on St. Patrick’s Day. I don’t expect people to “become” Jewish during any Jewish holidays, even the fun ones like Purim, which we just had. I’m of unimpeachable East European (Poland and Ukraine) stock, and wouldn’t insult the Irish by saying that I’m a little bit Irish. I just re-read this and realized it comes across a bit harsh. Without body language and facial expressions I’m not sure what to do about it. But I truly believe that taking over someone’s ethnic or national group just because they have a fun holiday seems condescending.
So a happy St. Patrick’s Day to the Irish. I’ll happily toast you with your “water of life”–the translation of the word “whiskey.”