St. Patrick’s Day musings on what it means to be Irish

At Boolavogue, as the sun was setting
O’er the bright May meadows of Shelmalier,
A rebel hand set the heather blazing
And brought the neighbors from far and near.
Then Father Murphy, from old Kilkormack,
Spurred up the rocks with a warning cry:
“Arm! Arm!” he cried.  “For I’ve come to lead you,
For Ireland’s freedom we fight or die.”

Over miles of narrowly paved roadways sheathed in thick brush you can wander, and not hear anything but the rustling of leaves and branches, or the swell of the breeze.  You can see fields peppered with livestock, draped over hills with ragged boulders clamoring to break through the cascading green of the lush countryside.  Opposite the farms, ripples of the ocean land softly upon the coastal beaches and lap against the rocks, foaming at the edges.

Welcome to Ireland’s “sunny southeast.”

If you continue to the peninsula, you discover The Hook – Europe’s oldest operating lighthouse – standing watch against the encroaching waters, and held aloft by layers of grey, muscular stone, sharpened to a knife’s edge by centuries of salt water erosion.  There the wind intensifies, echoing the demise of fishermen swallowed into the sea by rogue waves throughout the ages.

You are now not more than a few miles from Teac Colmcille, our family’s vacation home in County Wexford.  If you continue up the coast, you can visit the town of Boolavogue, where a priest named Father Murphy led an uprising in 1798, a place later to be immortalized in Irish Folklore with a lyric and melody of breathtaking depth – the song that bears its name.

The history of Ireland is violent, going back to its early days when it was a smattering of Kingships and warring clans locked in a Game Of Thrones death battle, to the epoch of British rule and bloody uprisings like the one at Boolavogue.

Yet the land itself portrays a beauty no painting can convey, and no photograph can capture.

It’s hard to describe the connection to a place that I’m certain all Irish living abroad never fully disentangle themselves from.  I myself have never lived in Ireland – at least not longer than a couple of months, one summer as a teenager – and I’m only half-Irish, however, for some reason setting down upon the Emerald Isle feels like coming home.

Ireland has many famous tourist attractions, the Cliffs of Moher, The Ring of Kerry, The Giant’s Causeway in the North – but for every jaw-dropping vista regularly frequented by tour buses, there are ten equally awe-inspiring nooks of natural canvas, dropped on the landscape as though by God himself.

The lesser-known Beara peninsula in County Cork, for example, cradles The Healy Pass.

There, stony mountains and harsh valleys weave together in an immortal tapestry, seemingly at the crossroads of time itself, where they exist at once in a single moment and in all of eternity.

The Irish are expert court-holders.

And they come by this pedigree honestly.

St. Patrick brought to Ireland the civilizing power of story.

Story draws from images and emotions and words, and imparts to them a logical sequence.   The human animal alone is equipped with the facility to reconcile these varied and disparate chunks of meaning.  St. Patrick wielded narrative like a sword, severing early Irish society from its attachment to chaos.  His words conjured in the natives’ minds the vision of what Ireland could be, and diverted their gaze from the flickering shadows of instinct, to the vibrant sunlight of reason.

In Patrick, the Irish found someone they could respect.

He recreated their culture using the symbols of Christianity as mythology.  In it, they could see themselves living with a courage forged in faith rather than in the tempest of battle.  This brought relative stability, growth, and intellectual rebirth.  Patrick’s own story is one of incredible fortitude in the face of calamity.  (Click here to read more about St. Patrick’s life.)

It’s said that if you capture a Leprechaun he can grant three wishes to secure his freedom.

This day, the three things we should hope St. Patrick’s legacy gifts us are first, the ability to laugh despite misfortune (the Irish are famous for their sense of humour – insert dirty limerick here), second, the wisdom to recognize the freedom in diversity (Patrick was not Irish by birth, but he believed in the Irish, and proved that when each of us is allowed to express his or her talents, all of humanity benefits) and third, awareness of the power of story, which can build or destroy not only individual lives, but entire civilizations.

With this knowledge, let us choose carefully what stories we entertain.

All of this is why St. Patrick is just as relevant today, as ever.

And why, as we wear green and gather with friends and family for a drink, we should want some small part in all of us to be Irish.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day,

Conor Kelly

Leave a Reply