(Photo courtesy of http://www.rootsweb.com/
BY MICHAEL LINN JONES
In a department store the other day I was confronted with one of those appeals to commercialization. It was a display filled with all the items someone needs to celebrate St. Patrick's Day. It included green felt hats with buckles on them (for leprechauns I presume), green beads adorned with shamrocks and beer mugs (of course), and so on. I'm proud to say that American marketers and Chinese factories have gone all-out this year to portray the Irish (and their descendants across the globe) as carefree, mindless drunks.
This is not to rain on anyone's parade, but rather to give a little perspective of what St. Patrick's Day is about. Or, at least to me. Like many, I won't let facts get in the way of a good story, but in this case I'll do my best.
The photo above is of the Rock of Cashel, in County Tipperary. It was here, as legend has it, that St. Patrick gathered a crowd and used a shamrock to teach the listeners of the Holy Trinity, each petal of the shamrock (since there's three) stood for The Father, The Son, and The Holy Spirit. St. Patrick spread Christianity across the entire island. He did it not with a sword, nor with threats. The pagan religion that prevailed at that time in Ireland gave way to Christianity, or adapted well to it in some aspects.
The people of Ireland were Celts. The Celts were a mysterious people who thrived in the British Isles for several eons. Also in what is now England the Angles mixed with the Saxons (Germans if you will). The Celts were widespread. To this day they are the Irish, the Scots, the Welsh, and small areas of Cornwall in England and a slice of Brittany in France, if you can believe it.
Zip forward in history to the 18th and 19th century to see the result of colonial empire. Ireland was a vassal colony of the English. There were "penal laws" in existence that prohibited Catholics from practicing their faith, owning land, and a myriad of other things. The most offensive was the law that required Catholics to pay tithe to the Church of England. What is little known is the fact that in the north of Ireland, Presbyterians were just as ruthlessly persecuted as the Catholics.
By the early years of the 19th century the "penal laws" were repealed; mostly through the efforts of one Daneil O'Connel. O'Connel was a member of Parliament (as well as a Protestant). He was given the name "the great liberator."
Despite that, economic freedoms were not extended. A native of Peru (the potato) became the staple diet for the vast majority of the Irish. When a blight of potatos arrived (from America I'm sad to say) the food people ate simply ceased to exist. It was known as the Great Famine, roughly lasting between 1844 and 1870. But a famine it was not, for that word implies no food at all was available. However, Irish farmers literally died from starvation while watching ships loaded with grain bound for England.
It was a horrible time. So many people were dying that coffins were made with a false bottom; the coffin would be lowered into the ground, the deceased would be released and the coffin would be re-used over and over. The dead were put on ships ("coffin ships") that would be sunk offshore. One man told me that if you could walk underwater, you could walk from the Dingle Peninsula to Boston Harbor without leaving the decks of the coffin ships.
Today we might call it ethnic cleansing. Ireland's population shrunk from 12 million to just over 3 million. About two million died of starvation and disease. The rest just left. They went to New York, Boston, San Francisco, Britain, Australia, and many other places. There were no leprechauns and no pots of gold at any rainbows for them. At least not in Ireland.
Here's something to think about on St. Patrick's Day: during the mass exodus of the Irish, cholera became one of the biggest killers. One man and his wife, from Cork, emigrated to Canada. Cholera had become so rampant that immigration authorities had all ships arrive at an island in the St. Lawrence river. Those who were healthy moved on. Those who were sick were detained on the island until they either recovered or died. This man's wife came down with cholera shortly before their ship arrived. He stayed on the island with her, but she quickly succumbed to the disease. Heartbroken, he moved on, eventually re-marrying and settling in Detroit. His son was Henry Ford
Many years later, Henry Ford established the first Ford factory outside the U.S. in Cork. Cork is a very hilly city (a little San Francisco some call it). One area is known as Fair Hill.. There is a street there named after an Irish revolutionary, Wolfe Tone. But long before that it was named Fair Lane. So those of you old enough to remember have learned how the Ford Fairlane got its name.
I was taught in college sociology that those who are oppressed learn well how to oppress. This was to explain the proliferation of dictatorships that evolved in so many former English colonies. Ireland is one that defintely did not. The Irish are a kind, intelligent, and welcoming people. Their national psyche will always carry the echos of past sufferings and loss, though.
They are irrepressible and have, I must confess, the most beautiful application of the English language in the world. I don't know about this "wearin' of the green" stuff. You don't know what green is until you've been there. I hope you go someday.
Just don't go with anticipation of seeing the "pig in the parlor" Irish, as they refer to it over there. Their outlook is modern yet much different than an American's. Culturally we owe them much.....at the very least the respect they deserve. For of all nations, Ireland has earned it as much as any other, if not more.
One thing Americans and the Irish have in common: being one or the other is a state of mind. If you want to celebrate anything on March 17th, celebrate that. Ireland is not the only nation to have suffered; as many people around the world are living a nightmare as bad as the Irish ever did.
But they are, if you will, a testimony to the resilience of the human spirit, and what it can accomplish.
Now THAT's something worth lifting a toast to.
Cross-posted at Michaellinnjones.com*****Chicago Sun Times has picked up this post...
Labels: Catholic Faith, Celts, Famine, Ireland, St. Patrick's Day, Starvation