Saturday, March 17, 2012

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.

Growing up in a postwar Catholic environment, we were taught that there were two kinds of people; those who were Irish, and those who wish they were. There were the Irish nuns who favored the Irish kids, including the unforgettable Sister Mary Mel, who wasn't above calling some miscreant a "jackass." My own family fell into neither category. 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 Saint 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 it for fame and fortune in shows like "Riverdance."

Who knew?

By the end of the 1970s I spent Sunday evenings working at a coffeehouse, and I helped broker a deal that brought Clannad to Cincinnati 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, especially since it was among my collection that was stolen from my apartment in Georgetown back in '94. (Bob, if you're reading this, tell your rich white trash buddies that I'd really like to have it back. And before you get defensive, the neighbors all thought YOU did it!) 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 at 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. I was under no illusions that this heritage was one that I could claim for my own.

VIDEO: The extraordinary scene and the music in O'Connor Square, Tullamore at Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann 2007 when 2,700 musicians converged to establish a World Record for the largest session. Here we have a variety of traditional Irish music played by musicians of many nationalities, followed by the reaction of Senator Labhrás Ó Murchú, Director-General of Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann.

In 1982, that claim became even more elusive. I married a girl 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. You see, I learned a piece of American Catholic history that the mostly Irish-American church historians didn't exactly wear on their sleeves.

By the time eastern Europeans came to America in the late 19th and early 20th century, the Irish were already 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. Going up the food chain, it got worse. Catholics of Eastern Rites -- with customs and liturgy similar to the Orthodox, but in communion with Rome -- had married priests. The mostly-Irish bishops assumed they were either schismatics, or worse. Their wives couldn't be treated in Catholic hospitals, and their children were barred from Catholic schools. Confused as these bishops were, they concluded that the faithful would be even more confused by the presence of married Catholic priests. Thus, by the 1920s, The (Irish-)American bishops pressured Rome to bar the (legitimately) married priests from coming to America, let alone ministering. It has been shown that most of the growth of Eastern Orthodoxy in North America can be attributed to the stubbornness and downright ignorance of the (Irish-)American bishops of the time. (Hey, guys, nice work!)

This latency towards all things Irish got a reprieve when the marriage tanked in 1990. Then one night -- it was about 1998, as I remember -- 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.”

VIDEO: When a film crew arrives at an inner city Dublin National School to record the children, the result is a warm, funny and spontaneous animated documentary, featuring young children telling the story of John the Baptist, The birth of Jesus, the Crucifixion, Saint Patrick and others. Give Up Yer Aul Sins combines simple humour with clever animation to create films with a timeless quality and appeal to a family audience.

I always knew that the Alexanders 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 by the Roman name of Maganus Sucatus (Maewyn Succat in Gaelic) 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.

For years, one highlight of the day would be the Annual Irish Poetry Reading. This was when I'd call my folks in Ohio on this day every year, and with their 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.

Alas, it won't be the same now that the old man has passed on.

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. At an opportune time and place, I will dine on corned beef and cabbage. This is admittedly an American innovation for the Irish, as poor immigrants from the "auld sod" found corned beef (a substitute used by their Jewish neighbors in place of bacon) to be much cheaper than lamb. Anyway, unless I'm out on the town that evening, I'll probably watch Mel Gibson in Braveheart. Who cares if William Wallace was Scottish? No one cares if Patrick isn't Irish, do they?

After all, "The Apostle of Ireland" is properly claimed by Catholics everywhere, whether those "micks" like it or not.

“Agus fagaimid siud mar ata se.”

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