My Annual Über-Celtic Moment
Longtime readers of man with black hat have read most of this before, but we have some new people in our audience.
So the rest of you, humor me.
Today the Church celebrates the feast of Saint Patrick (387-493), the patron saint of Ireland. It is on the Emerald Isle that the day was traditionally a religious holiday, when the bars would close and the churches would be full out of obligation. Only in recent years has the Irish feast seen a more rebellious spirit, complete with parades and green beer, which is definitely an American influence. (I can't imagine why Europeans hate us so much, can you?)
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. This included the notorious Sister Mary Mel, who wasn't above calling some miscreant a "jackass." My own 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 arrogant and obnoxious than they already were.
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. I used to watch the St Patrick's Day parade in Cincinnati, which included the carrying of the statue of the Saint, which the local chapter of the Ancient Order of Hibernians would "steal" in the middle of night, from what was once the German parish in Mount Adams. (Long story.) There was also the local Irish dance school, with boys and girls who never imagined that, a quarter century later, they could do this for a living in shows like "Riverdance."
By the end of the 1970s I spent Sunday evenings working at a coffeehouse, and I helped broker a deal that brought Clannad to town on their first American tour. I even gave harpist/vocalist Máire Brennan (pronounced MOY-uh) a ride back to where she was staying. Otherwise shy and aloof, she managed to laugh at my jokes. That seemed to matter at the time.
I saw Máire again in 1987, in a music video on VH1, for a song entitled "Something to Believe In." She was also the haunting voice in the Volkswagen commercials. Naturally she's world-famous now, and probably wouldn't return my calls. Although she did write me a long and possibly heartfelt note when she autographed my copy of their album. I say "possibly" because it was in Gaelic, so I'll never know for sure, but she obviously went to some trouble. Máire also came out with a book in 2001 entitled "The Other Side of the Rainbow." She continues to tour and so on, but I knew her when.
(Sigh ...) Anyway, back to the '70s.
While the whole world (including "Sal") was going bonkers over disco, 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 (if not quite what appears in the above video), 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.
In 1982, that claim became even more elusive. I married a gal whose grandparents came over from Slovakia, and who grew up hearing Slovak around the house. This pretty much killed any enthusiasm for all things Irish around our house. By the time eastern Europeans came to America in the late 19th and early 20th century, the Irish were the big fish in the little blue-collar pond, and didn't mind letting the "hunkies" in the coal towns and factory neighborhoods know it. This latency got a reprieve when the marriage tanked in 1990.
Then one night -- it was about 1998, I think -- 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. I was later to find out, that the man known as Maganus Sucatus was of a Roman family, born in Kilpatrick, near Dumbarton, in that part of Great Britain that is now 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 (although, according to the video on the left, I should know better). 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, whether the Irish like it or not.
“Agus fagaimid siud mar ata se.”