The Green Heart of Saint Patrick’s Day
Saint Patrick’s Day approaches fast, and we can all use the cheer it brings along. Especially after the winter we’ve endured. Still, the images that fly around the media usually include a few examples of drunken excess. More than a few. For many of us, those images and the prevailing attitudes about the day — somehow akin to Fat Tuesday — can dampen our spirits a bit. Not because we haven’t earned the right to a bit of fun. No, it’s because the accepted inebriation of the day often masks the identity of the Irish race behind stereotypes that can be hard to live with. These stereotypes also hide the true heart of the celebration.
First there’s the history of the man. Patrick was a patrician son of some privilege, raised in Roman Britain. His travails as he struggled to achieve freedom after being stolen into slavery, keeping sheep on a lonely mountain, by an Irish warlord. His break for that freedom, secreted and sustained along the way by simple, decent people. His decision to bring those people something he valued above everything else. All these illustrate the drive of a highly spiritual, motivated, compassionate man. Patrick, an Irish-Celtic name he later took, was a man who, through force of will was able to convince the Pope of the time that he could bring the Gospel to the Island that had resisted Roman rule successfully for hundreds of years. He won their hearts and minds through years of steadfast labor and his love of his new home.
Next there is the miracle of the monastic tradition he introduced and encouraged that sustained Western philosophy and literature through the collapse of Rome and the Dark Ages that followed. Historian Thomas Cahill’s exceptional book, How the Irish Saved Civilization (Anchor, 1996) illustrates the lasting legacy of this unique branch of academic pursuit. For the Irish, whose love of music, history and storytelling was firmly established in the ancient, bardic tradition long before Caesar ever glimpsed Britain, this reverence for the preservation of knowledge and the cultural arts is a matter of pride.
Finally, there is the often painful legacy of a people living under occupied oppression for “eight hundred long years” as author Frank McCourt put it. Though every possible pressure was applied against them; stripping away the land itself, their language, even their faith, they endured. From that evolved an unshakeable belief in the value of loyalty, honor and the love of family, no matter how far from their own soil they were driven. Many sons of Ireland, in fact, turned their love of words into powerful weapons against the injustice they were forced to live with. Their words are remembered, to this day, for their piercing, devastating passion. While there was also a lot of anger, failure, struggle and violence there has been lasting, worldwide benefit in the contributions of Irish culture and idealism.
On the day set aside for remembrance, we recall, too, that not so long ago, Irish men and women who had escaped famine-plagued poverty in their home came to these shores. They didn’t find welcome here either and it persisted until quite recently.
My wife recalls a conversation with a friend, many years ago. They were speaking of Saint Patrick’s Day, coming soon, and her friend told her a story of her great-aunt, who, with her sister, had saved their pennies for the day they would go shopping at Macy’s in Herald Square. They were at the jewelry counter, when one sister clutched the edge of the glass case, then collapsed on the floor, experiencing a major seizure.
“She’s an epileptic!” Her sister cried out for help, asking, “will someone please call the police? We need help!”
The counter clerk made no move for the telephone, cast a doubtful eye on the two women on the floor below the counter and replied, “You’re Irish, aren’t you? She’s drunk. Just get her out of here so she can sleep it off!” No help came, and the afflicted woman died there on Macy’s showroom floor.
My wife recounted the story to me last night, prompted by news footage of seriously intoxicated revelers along last year’s parade route. When she was finished, there were tears in her eyes. She daubed at her face with a nearby napkin, which she held up for me to see.
It was marked with green patches where her tears has soaked in. She’d been to the ophthamologist earlier and some of the medicines used by the doctor remained in her eyes. She smiled and said, “See? I even cry green tears.”
Our grandson turns eighteen on Monday. His father may march with his brothers in the parade in Manhattan, as he has so many times, wearing his dress FDNY uniform. If he takes the streets, it won’t be to wear a ridiculous oversized hat and fall down on a sidewalk outside of a bar. He’ll be marching with his brothers for all the things it means to be Irish, not just the invention of distilling of spirits and the brewing of the expression of God’s love known as Guinness.
Sure, we’ll all raise a few glasses as that’s tradition too, but for those of us who wear the green on the inside, our toasts won’t be the main point of the celebration. Having our family around us to enjoy the life we’ve built while honoring our forebears and their faith is what lies at the heart of Saint Patrick’s Day.