Susan here – This week most of us will find a way to celebrate the Irish and Ireland on Saint Patrick’s Day, whether it's wearing green or heading to the pub (although this year, the brighter idea is to stay home, eat fish and chips, maybe pour a Guinness or a whiskey or some Irish coffee, and watch The Quiet Man or Derry Girls). One of my grandfathers was Irish, the son of an Irish minister from County Cork who brought his young family of four sons, including my grandfather as a wean, through Ellis Island. I have Irish on both maternal and paternal sides (the DNA tests and ongoing genealogy tree indicate that I’m about 47% Irish, in a blend of Scottish, English, French, Italian, and even a smidge of Jewish way back). But this week I’m all about my Irish side, and March 17th is a day to be proudly wearin’ the green while we all celebrate even the slightest degree of Irish blood. And if it’s not in your DNA, it may be in your heart, in your love and attraction for the incomparable, irrepressible, charming, feisty, poetic, the profound and unforgettable Irish and their beautiful land.
Beginning as a celebration of St. Patrick’s life, St. Patrick's Day has come a long way. Patrick was a 5th century British son of a noble house, enslaved and brought to Ireland; he escaped, yet returned once he became a priest, bringing Christianity to the pagan Celtic Irish. From that humble start grew the myth of clearing the snakes (pagan beliefs?) out of Ireland, and from there to wearing green, displaying shamrocks, drinking green beer, singing Irish songs in pubs, eating Irish fare, dyeing an entire river green (Chicago) and generally loving all things Irish or even remotely Irish for one fine day. And it has become, it seems, as big a deal in America as it is in Ireland, with the tremendous importance and impact of Irish immigrants and their descendants throughout the history of America.
One of the most powerful aspects of St. Patrick's life and story, I think, is the "Breastplate of Saint Patrick," the prayer he is said to have composed himself in the 5th century–and its style is very much that of ancient Celtic invocations. Part of it reads:
I bind to myself today
The power of Heaven,
The light of the Sun,
The whiteness of Snow,
The force of Fire,
The flash of Lightning,
The velocity of Wind,
The depth of the Sea,
The stability of the Earth,
The hardness of Rocks…
I haven’t been to Ireland yet, and will get there someday. I feel as drawn to the culture and history of Ireland as I am to Scotland and all the places in the wide Celtic world. My novels are set in Scotland for the most part, and I haven’t yet explored in my writing the deep love and fascination I feel for Ireland and Irishness; that’s another someday as well. Here’s a list of a few of my favorite Irish things, in no particular order …
—The Book of Kells, ca. 800, Trinity College Library – a stunning illuminated book. Here’s what Thomas Cahill has to say about the Irish and books, in How the Irish Saved Civilization: (one of my personal favorite books, btw) –
Wherever they went the Irish brought with them their books, many unseen in Europe for centuries and tied to their waists as signs of triumph, just as Irish heroes had once tied to their waists their enemies' heads. Where they went they brought their love of learning and their skills in bookmaking. In the bays and valleys of their exile, they reestablished literacy and breathed new life into the exhausted literary culture of Europe. And that is how the Irish saved civilization.
—Irish pubs and fish and chips, including local lovely Irish places such as An Poitin Stil near Baltimore, where I sometimes meet Mary Jo to nosh on fish and chips and soda bread (as soon as this Covid thing clears out of our lives, that’s the first place I’m going!). While I’m not a fan of beer, I do love the atmosphere of a good pub.
–A new favorite, the inflatable Irish pub – I’d love to have one of these in my backyard! https://inflatable.pub/
—Celtic jewelry – I have many pieces and love each one, silver spirals, knotwork designs, much of it Irish made and as lovely as it gets.
—TV shows and movies set in Ireland — so many favorites! Here are just a few that capture a sense of Ireland and Irish: The Quiet Man, Waking Ned Devine, The Commitments, and a wonderful TV series, Moone Boy, starring the irrepressible Irish charmer, Chris O’Dowd (of the hilarious IT Crowd, where his Irishness also shines).
A new favorite is Derry Girls—a smart, funny, endearing comedy series about schoolgirls in Ireland during the troubles of the 1990s. It is frequently flat-out hilarious, quintessentially Irish and charming, and so delightful that we’ve binged it a few times in our house. Here's a trailer.
—Riverdance! I’ve seen it three times onstage, and adore this phenomenal show and its extraordinary music and energy. http://riverdance.com/usa/
— Irish music, my favorite being Irish harp. I can listen to it endlessly. I have a Celtic harp of my own, and took enough lessons to be able to pluck away at a few tunes—though mostly what I’ve gained is a better understanding of harp-playing and harpists as research for some of my novels.
—Trinity College Library, Dublin – I’ve never seen it, but must step inside one day. Its vast shelves and tiers are truly breathtaking, the stuff of dreams for any bookophile.
This list could be endless, but I’ll end here – I know you all have your own favorite Irish things to add.
What do you love best about Ireland? Have you visited or lived there? Are you of Irish descent, or a fan of all things Irish regardless of your gene pool?