Where I live things are beginning to turn green with a hint of spring. But it isn’t just the flora here that has an intimation of green. The whole country, indeed, the whole world, is greening for St. Patrick’s Day.
The most extraordinary thing happens on that day: People around the world shed their ethnic identities to take on an Irish one. On March 17, the world decides it is Irish and that it must, as the Irish do, take a drink.
No other country commandeers the world more than that small island nation set in the North Atlantic. On the day when an otherwise obscure saint is celebrated, the world wears some item of green and quaffs something fermented or distilled.
For me, Ireland has always been a place of glorious contradictions and great writers – Joyce, Yeats, Shaw, Wilde, Swift, O’Brien, Beckett and Lewis, come to mind in no order, and there are hundreds more.
It isn’t just that its writers are among the greatest, but also that the Irish speak poetically, eschewing the simple answer, embroidering the boring cloth of fact, and sometimes confusing those who don’t have the gift of deciphering eloquence.
An Irish friend, John McCaughey, and I were walking with our wives in Kinsale, on the southwest coast of Ireland, when we came upon a tempting pub and were tempted. It wasn’t open, but an old man – and the old men of Ireland are a breed apart — was patiently waiting.
“When will he be open?” John asked.
“He’d hardly be open now,” said the old man.
“Well, when will he be open?”
“Oh, he’ll be open in good time.”
I asked John what he meant by “in good time.”
It means, said John, that he didn’t have a clue, but he wouldn’t like to say something so bald and down-letting.
In Ireland, the facts are often delivered in fine gift-wrapping.
In a restaurant, my wife asked whether the fish was fresh. The waiter replied, “If it were any fresher, it would be swimming, and you wouldn’t want that now, would you?”
I spent two decades visiting Ireland as the American organizer of the Humbert Summer School in Ballina, Co. Mayo. Summer schools in Ireland are study groups that meet once a year and can focus on literature, like the Yeats school, or politics like the Parnell school. They are akin to Bill Clinton’s Renaissance weekends.
The Humbert Summer School, created by John Cooney, the eminent historian and journalist, and sadly no longer operating, was named for Gen. Jean Joseph Amable Humbert, who was sent by Napoleon to assist the Irish with the uprising against the English in 1798, remembered in “The Year of the French” by Thomas Flanagan. The uprising failed, but Humbert became an Irish hero. (He fought gallantly in the Battle of New Orleans and ended his days in the city as a French teacher.)
Our summer school examined the position of Ireland in the world, especially its role in Europe. Every year I would try and bring a few Americans to the northwest of Ireland to enjoy the discussions, the great lamb, salmon and potatoes, and, of course, the free flow of Guinness, Murphy’s (another stout), Smithwick’s (the dominant beer), and Bushmills and Jameson whiskeys, refreshments we found conducive to good talk.
That part of Ireland historically had been hard used by the English, from the time of William of Orange in the 17th century to the Black and Tans in 1920, who were ill-trained and equipped English policemen, many teenagers, raised in England and inserted into the Royal Irish Constabulary, to oppose the Irish fight to overthrow English rule. They wore surplus green tunics and khaki trousers, hence their naming. Their conduct was brutal and thuggish.
I had told this dreadful history of English oppression in some detail to one of my American guests, Ray Connolly, who was from Boston. Driving back to Dublin, after the summer school session, we stopped at a pub. When the publican heard my English accent, he asked me about the weather “over there.” I knew he meant England. I told him that I used to live in England, but I had lived in the United States for many years and had become an American citizen. Rather than curling his lip at me, he threw his arms around my neck and said, “God bless you. You haven’t lost your accent.”
My friend was askance. I explained to Ray that the Irish love to denounce the English, but they are especially proud when their children have homes and careers in London.
In Ireland, your enemy can also be your friend. That is why I shall wear the green on the great day and sip something stronger than usual and celebrate a Frenchman who fought with the Irish against my ancestors. Slainte!