Sunday, March 14, 2010
A shot o' the green stuff
Americans seem to revel in St Patrick's Day. As March 17 approaches the radio is buzzing with the news of Irish celebrations at local bars and the stores are filling up with cutsie shamrocks and Leprechauns.
If you are called Reilly or O'Mally or Sullivan you will be expected to show up to work wearing green and hailing "top 'o the morning."
I always find it strange that nobody in America gives a damn about St Andrew's Day, St David's Day or even St George's Day, although there are surely as many Americans of English descent as there are Irish.
Then again the English don't even care much about St. George and there is considerable evidence he never even set foot in Blighty.
As someone with a last name that is Irish/Scottish I am bemused by all the Paddy Day's euphoria. Admittedly a great-great grandmother back in Scotland, who probably wasn't so great, changed the spelling of our last name from McAulay because it sounded too Catholic.
But even with the present spelling I can boast IRA terrorists with my last name, inevitably with the moniker "Mad Dog" somewhere in the mix.
I have been to Ireland a few times and have been intoxicated by the place on each occasion, usually literally and metaphorically.
There is surely no other city in the world than Dublin where an old man can turn to you as you rattle on a bus down Rathmines Road in the early hours of the morning to a half remembered B&B and tell you his life story through tear-stained eyes.
Waking up to a sunny spring morning in Dublin through bleary eyes and driving to the Wicklow Mountains is probably the closest thing you can get to a perfect morning in the western hempishere, as long as you blot out thoughts of Ballykissangel.
And Glendalough with its magical lake and monastery ruins, its towers with conical roofs and its Celtic crosses on the shore, is enough to make the most ardent atheist a believer.
Further west there is the magic of the peninsulas of Cork and Kerry where high mountains plunge into the Atlantic, and the long and lonely beaches of the Dingle Peninsula that are deserted for most of the year.
There are also a lot of Americans.
The best advice for Europeans who don't want to be plunged into the mentality of a mall in the middle of Ohio while in County Cork is don't kiss the Blarney stone.
Of course, we ignored this advice and joined the tortuous line up the castle keep to slobber on a rock that bore the spittle of half of New Jersey.
Many of the American visitors were showing signs of pathological impatience as they waited for a glimpse of the sputum rock that would make them talk even more, if that were possible. Subtle telltale signs gave their agst away such as hypperactive use of their cell phones and dangling their children off an 80 foot high castle Michael Jackson-style.
After some years of living in the US I have realized Americans are much misunderstood abroad. Either that or the loudest Americans travel to Europe, leaving the decent, softly spoken inhabitants of the USA at home.
The beauty of Ireland can be captivating but it's also deceptive. A major reason why western Ireland doesn't resemble Manchester today is the Great Famine of 1740-41, a black chapter in the history of the country and its English masters.
The famine is just one sad episide in the blood-soaked history of a country that has seen civil warfare and sectarian strife until recent years.
A decade ago in Northern Ireland I was chilled to drive through a village on the Antrim coast where the sidewalks were all painted garish red, white and blue and the forbidding red hand of the Ulster freedom fighters greeted travelers at its margins by a police station entrenched in barbed wire.
It seemed hard to believe this forbidding and shuttered up village was in the same country that boasted little pastel colored towns such as Kinsale in Cork, renown for their dancing and seafood.
In America it's easy to gloss over the bloodshed and the dark days of Ireland and think the whole place is one great big party full of smiling redheads poisted to do the Riverdance at the first invitation. It's a mentality that gave the IRA freedom fighter status Stateside for many decades, until the fall of the Twin Towers brought home the real horror of terrorism.
But the subtle irony of all things Irish in America wasn't lost on the pop group the Pogues who once wrote.
"Where e'er we go, we celebrate
The land that makes us refugees
From fear of Priests with empty plates
From guilt and weeping effigies."