To Be Irish, If Only For A Day
Irish Americans have a peculiar preoccupation, which is to identify the things of life that are uniquely Irish. There are those things that bring pride to the Irish tribe and elevate and strengthen communion with the old country. But, though the Irish have an exceptional capacity for pride, I have never interpreted this Gaelic tendency as justification for exclusion. For instance, the old and over told joke about the Irish Troubles makes fun of the interreligious strife while emphasizing the similarities between factions::
A stranger to a Belfast neighborhood gets lost and wanders down a dark alley. He is accosted suddenly by a man who leaps from the shadows and demands: Tell me, are ye’ Protestant or Catholic? — while wielding a sharp knife in his face. The lost and terrified man stammers out: I’m an atheist. The man with the knife squints and holds the knife closer and asks: Are you a Protestant atheist or a Catholic atheist?
The religion of the person doing the accosting is never revealed—and the subtext of the joke concerns the fact that he could as easily be a Catholic as a Protestant. Whichever religion he is, is unimportant. When someone tells the joke, they do so with a wink–He may be a fanatic, but he’s our fanatic — an Irish fanatic.
If Irishness can be extended between warring tribes within the old country, it is most certainly extended to every other tribe for at least one day of the year. On March 17th, anyone who wishes can be Irish. And so, as you approach the holiday of St. Patrick’s day, you may ask yourself:: What are those qualities that are specifically Irish? You may automatically look to the following::
The national drink of Ireland.
The national sport of Ireland.
The national pastime of Ireland.
The national pride of Ireland.
All of the things on this list are just dandy, and each of these are worthy of Irish pride—though obviously one of these require moderation. I mean redheads, of course. Anyhow, I do not think that any one of them can individually capture the spirit of being Irish as much as a poem. I do not mean a specific poem. Instead, I mean the poem that a gentleman may carry within himself that rattles around in his brain and lives at the tip of his tongue, ready to be recited at just the right moment–to express in meter the miseries of defeat at the hands of a foreign colonizer, or the persistent aches of a love that is lost, or the bliss of the gathering of friends and family during the moments of life that truly matter.
Poetry seems to me to be the Irish national language and the true measure of what it means to be Irish, if only for a day. And if you should catch me on St. Patrick’s day, I will have my poem with me. Ask me to recite it for you, and I will. Even if you catch me three sheets to the wind.
An Irish Airman Foresees His Death
— WB Yeats
I know that I shall meet my fate
Somewhere among the clouds above;
Those that I fight I do not hate,
Those that I guard I do not love;
My country is Kiltartan Cross,
My countrymen Kiltartan’s poor,
No likely end could bring them loss
Or leave them happier than before.
Nor law, nor duty bade me fight,
Nor public men, nor cheering crowds,
A lonely impulse of delight
Drove to this tumult in the clouds;
I balanced all, brought all to mind,
The years to come seemed waste of breath,
A waste of breath the years behind
In balance with this life, this death.