Tuesday, March 17, 2009

My Obligatory Celtic Moment

[What follows is a compilation of past writings at mwbh for this occasion, with a few new surprises thrown in.]

Today the Church celebrates the feast of Saint Patrick (387-493), patron of Ireland. It is on the Emerald Isle that the day is traditionally a religious holiday -- the bars would close and the churches would be full out of obligation -- with the more rebellious spirit of recent years, complete with parades and green beer, being an American import. So now the Irish get to be as obnoxious as the Americans they resent, for coming over to their country and trying to buy up what those "damn Yankees" claim are their ancestral lands.

Meanwhile, closer to home...

Growing up in a postwar Catholic environment, we were told that there were two kinds of people; those who were Irish, and those who wish they were. There were even Irish nuns who favored the Irish kids, and weren't above calling some miscreant a "jackass." Of course, my family fell into neither category, and I came to dismiss the whole notion of St Paddy's Day -- indeed, the whole notion of being Irish -- as a license for certain people to be more obnoxious than usual.

Then I went to college, where I discovered Irish music. I mean the real thing, not the over-romanticized "Christmas-in-Killarney-on-St-Patrick's-in-June" that passed itself off as genuine the whole time. I simply could not get enough of it. In the late 70s I helped out at a coffeehouse, where we even brought Clannad to town on their first American tour. I even gave Maire Brennan (pronounced MOY-uh) a ride back to where she was staying. Otherwise shy and aloof, she even laughed at my jokes. That seemed to matter at the time. The next time I saw her, it was five years later on VH1, singing "Something To Believe In." She was also the haunting voice behind the Volkswagen commercials. If only I'd known...

While I lived in Cin City, the feast became an annual ritual, of spending most of the accompanying weekend hanging out at Hap's Irish Pub in the Hyde Park section of Cincinnati, or Arnold's Bar and Grill downtown. Even when I moved to Washington in 1980, I learned Irish dancing, Irish folk tales, and the like. But the upscale bars in the Nation's capital weren't as quaint as the neighborhood pubs in my old hometown, and I was under no illusions that this heritage was one that I could claim for my own.

Then a few years ago, I was interviewed for a writing job by a priest who edited a major Catholic periodical. A native of Dublin, he reminded me of what really mattered:

"Patrick was not Irish, and on his Feast Day, we do not celebrate being Irish; we celebrate being Catholic."

I always knew that my father's side came from a small town near Verdun, in the Lorraine province of France. But in recent years, we learned that before the 18th century, the Alexandre line was expatriated from Scotland, a result of the Rebellion when England overtook them. More recently, I was to learn that Maganus Sucatus (aka Maewyn Succat) was of a Roman Briton family, born in Kilpatrick, near Dumbarton, in Scotland. Sooooo... if not being Irish were not enough, Patrick -- as he was known in later years, being of the Roman "patrician" class, and a "patriarch" to his spiritual charges -- might well be claimed by the Scots as one of their own.

One highlight of the day will be the Annual Irish Poetry Reading, which is basically when I call my folks in Ohio on this day every year, and with the speakerphone on, recite the following piece by Benjamin Hapgood Burt in a very bad Irish brogue:

One evening in October, when I was one-third sober,
   An' taking home a "load" with manly pride;
My poor feet began to stutter, so I lay down in the gutter,
   And a pig came up an' lay down by my side;
Then we sang "It's all fair weather when good fellows get together,"
   Till a lady passing by was heard to say:
"You can tell a man who 'boozes' by the company he chooses"
   And the pig got up and slowly walked away.

Today, those who are Irish, or who wish they were, will dine on Irish lamb stew. When I can ever find it amidst my stuff, I use this occasion to wear a button with the words of William Butler Yeats: "I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree." I will listen to Celtic music the entire day, and get a take-out order of corned beef and cabbage from an Irish pub. Then tonight I'll probably watch Mel Gibson in Braveheart. Who cares if William Wallace was Scottish? No one cares if Patrick is, do they?

After all, "The Apostle of Ireland" is properly claimed by Catholics everywhere. "Agus fagaimid siud mar ata se."


Portiuncula said...

What a great entry!

Thank you!

matthias said...

Loved this entry mbwh. St Patrick's Day is my brothers birthday,and my paternal grandmother would have been 132 on this day.
Back in Colonial Australia-we federated in 1901- St Pat's,St David's and St Andrews days were all public holidays in the 6 colonies,as we were then colonies of the UK
And on this day I have toasted not only your good self,and the friendship between Yanks and Aussies-we have had 140 of your firefighters over here helping post bushfire disaster- but also the Kings over the water ie the survivors of the House of Stuart