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There is a corned beef and cabbage dinner underway at home. There will be a family gathering and I will once again pretend to like corned beef and cabbage. The fact that that is considered a highpoint of Irish cuisine is itself a sad commentary on the fate of that historically troubled place.
When I was a very young man, I was given a summer trip to Ireland for three weeks. I visited as many of the ancestral spots as I could find, relying on my aunt’s written guidance. In a small town in County Tipperary, I found the bare ruins of a small castle that could have been the keep of my Norman forbear (before his line went native). There were only two pubs in town and little or nothing to see. I entered one, ordered a shot of Irish and a pint and raised a silent toast to those who got the hell out there and got on a boat so I could be an American.
I have always regarded St. Patrick as truly remarkable. I believe Ireland was the only nation converted to Christianity with virtually no martyrs, a peaceful revolution of consequence and it began with one man. It was not overnight, as I recall reading about a pagan king of Leinster buried standing upright in full armor in the mid 500s AD, but he was the last of his kind.
Patrick famously sermonized on the Trinity using a shamrock—three leaflets but one entity and it became the symbol of Ireland. There is some controversy about which plant species he used. Candidates include the wood sorrel and hop-hop clover. I had a botany professor who claimed the current shamrock was not what Patrick used. On my trip to Ireland that summer I polled many even asking an old man in the Aran Islands who had only been off the island once in his life to help me find a shamrock and I smuggled the samples back my former professor. It was the shamrock as we assume it is and not the plant species he theorized about. He was amused but it was too late to raise my grade.
When Europe was overrun by various barbarian tribes, assaulted by Arabs and pillaged by Vikings, Ireland’s monasteries preserved much of the Western culture, even sending missionaries to the continent to re-introduce Christianity. As a reward for Ireland’s loyalty to the Faith, the only English pope (Adrian IV) declared Ireland to be subject to the English (Anglo-Norman) crown in 1155 and urged an invasion. My last name is derived from that of one such Norman invader. The papal pretext for the invasion was that the system of abbeys and monasteries instead of dioceses was an affront to proper church organization. It is hard to see how that would justify a military solution.
The Normans (presumably including my ancestors) were cruel and ruthless in their conquest of Saxon England and Celtic Wales and not particularly gentle in Ireland a century later, either. But the Normans had organizational and administrative skills that ultimately made England into the first modern nation-state. The great tragedy of the Norman invasion of Ireland is that it permanently denied the Irish an independent national identity and neither completed the conquest and integrate the Irish into a new administrative form such the Irish could enjoy the same path to nationhood as England and France (also achieved with considerable Norman influence).
Brooding on such things on this feast day is quintessentially Irish as wonderfully encapsulated by the indispensable William Butler Yeats:
Being Irish, he had an abiding sense of tragedy, which sustained him through temporary periods of joy.
We have the virus to contend with this St. Patrick’s Day but I doubt any of my Irish forbears would feel sorry for us given what they endured in eras far tougher to live through than our own. Bless them all for allowing me to be alive and to see my wonderful family gathered tonight for a meal I would gladly otherwise skip.
Happy St. Patrick’s Day, Ricochet!Published in