Culture

A Real Saint Patrick’s Day Seisiún

The Cliffs of Moher
With saints and scholars and rowdy discontents.

EDITOR’S NOTE: In celebration of the Feast of Saint Patrick, National Review asked some friends and colleagues for their thoughts on the day and on their favorite aspects of Irish history and culture. 

Richard Brookhiser

One of William Butler Yeats’s last poems is called “Beautiful Lofty Things.” After that unexplained title, he gives a list of vignettes of Irish men and women, figures in the arts and politics, whom he knew during his life: his father, baiting a hostile audience at a public meeting; an aristocratic old lady defying thugs who threatened her by telling them when she sits in her unshaded window at night; an eloquent drunk; a former lover, glimpsed on a train platform. None is as famous as Yeats, most are forgotten (except to Irish specialists). But at the end of the poem Yeats calls them “Olympians” and adds that they are “a thing never known again.” Irish pride, and an Irish boast. But it also is the way love works: We love those we love for who they are. We see what is Olympian in them, and love (we hope) makes them immortal.

— Richard Brookhiser is author, most recently, of Founders’ Son: A Life of Abraham Lincoln.

Patrick Brennan

A piece of relatively recent, uplifting, and quintessentially Irish history: Ireland’s most successful sport as an international matter — its only successful one, really — is rugby, and yet its national sports stadium, Dublin’s Croke Park, didn’t host a rugby match for its first 120 or so years. That was because the stadium was built and run by the Gaelic Athletic Association, which didn’t have much affection for rugby, a British game. In fact, it had antipathy for the upper-class, snotty game and was explicitly set up to promote the patriotic sports of hurling and Gaelic football, both of which have roots in Irish history but weren’t formalized until Irish republicanism demanded it. And the patriotic importance of Croke Park was literally in its foundations: One of the stadium’s stands was built from rubble gathered during the failed 1916 Easter Rising. (Well, to be more precise, actual historians take issue with the GAA’s version — the hill the stand was built on was around before 1916, and renamed “Hill 16” at one point to obscure an earlier name that had honored British troops.)

The first rugby game ever played at Croke Park was, alas, a loss by Ireland to France, opening the 2007 Six Nations tournament, one of the most important tournaments in world rugby. (The stadium Ireland normally used for rugby was, I guess like everything else in Ireland in the mid 2000s, being torn down and replaced with something flashier.) A couple weeks later, Ireland had a more important, more tense match — they were to welcome English rugby players to a stadium where 87 years before English soldiers had, responding to an IRA operation earlier in the day, massacred 14 Irish civilians and wounded dozens more. The site of Bloody Sunday, though, turned out to be a site for reconciliation, too. The English team sang “God Save the Queen” without interruption, and the ruggers in green earned the biggest win they’d ever gotten over England, 43–13. They say Irish grudges last forever, but I suppose this was one of those temporary bouts of joy Yeats talked about.

— Patrick Brennan is the opinion editor at National Review Online.

Edward john Craig

A hundred thousand blessings on my father, Padraig; my brother, Patrick; my nephews Patrick William, James Patrick, and Liam Patrick; and my daughter, Alexandra, born four years ago this day.

— Edward John Craig is managing editor of National Review Online.

Timothy Michael Cardinal Dolan

I love so many aspects of Ireland’s culture and history, but one place that stands out for me is Lough Derg — the sacred sanctuary of Saint Patrick, where for over 1,000 years Christians have traveled to make a pilgrimage in the footsteps of the great saint (and patron of our beloved Archdiocese of New York) himself. It is a small island that offers peace, tranquility, and an opportunity to pause and reflect on our lives, usually filled with so much busyness and distraction. I am thinking of Lough Derg especially since the wonderful announcement last week from our Holy Father, Pope Francis, that we Catholics will be celebrating a Jubilee Year dedicated to mercy beginning in December. Countless pilgrims have spent days in silent prayer and penance there, pondering the great gift of God’s abundant mercy and love for His people. I know I am looking forward to returning there this August when I lead a group of pilgrims from New York to Ireland, as it will be a wonderful opportunity for prayer. And maybe, after thanking God for the great gift of His mercy, we will stop at a local pub to offer thanks for another of His great gifts!

— Timothy Michael Cardinal Dolan is archbishop of New York.

Ray Flynn

Saint Patrick’s Day in my neighborhood of South Boston was celebrated in much of the same tradition as in Ireland. Because it was a civic holiday, the children were off from school. Many of the mothers would be up early making Irish soda bread and oatmeal before heading off to the 11 o’clock morning Mass, which was celebrated by our neighbor, Richard Cardinal Cushing, who was a bishop at the time. Many of families who attended Mass were first- or second-generation Irish, and the bishop would inspire everyone in the traditional teachings of Jesus Christ. As poor as many of the people were, they always contributed to the African Missions. Irish Catholics recall the earlier days of “Help Wanted” signs appearing in downtown stores, but the signs also contained the words, “No Irish need apply.” Even in the “educational center” of America, discrimination against the Irish was openly practiced. We heard these stories as kids growing up.

Ray Flynn and his grandson, Braeden O’Doherty, with Joan Burton, TD, leader of the Labor Party in Ireland, on Sunday, March 15, 2015, at Saint Brigid Church in South Boston.

After Mass, the people would head over to the school hall where hot tea and scones were served. Mothers would often talk about a son in the military, things back home in Ireland, or about a sick neighbor. Fathers would talk about work or a soccer match back in Ireland. A fiddle and accordion player would play traditional Irish music on the stage, and several of our neighbors would sing a song. Even as a seven-year-old boy, I would go up on the stage and sing “A Mother’s Love Is a Blessing,” and everyone in the hall would join in. By 2 p.m., the party was about to wind down, but not before one of the Irish nuns would lead the gathering in a little story about the life of Saint Patrick.

Years later the celebration of the day would take me to Mass at Saint Peter’s with Pope John Paul II, dinner with the president at the White House, being grand marshal for Saint Patrick’s Day in New York City, Dublin, Ireland, and other great world cities — but attending Mass on Saint Patrick’s Day in my hometown of South Boston with my family and neighbors will always be my fondest memory of “my favorite day of the year.”

—  Ray Flynn is the former mayor of Boston and U.S. ambassador to the Vatican.

Jim Geraghty

The Bell of Saint Patrick sits in the National Museum of Ireland, a highly venerated relic.

Centuries ago in Ireland, it was used for swearing oaths: “It is a black bell for which the inhabitants have a peculiar veneration. It is used as a thing to swear on in legal matters, and no one will dare to perjure himself on it. They have strange ideas on the subject of this bell, and believe that the devil will carry them off immediately if they dare to affirm on it anything that is not true.”

According to several accounts from the late 1700s and 1800s, the family in charge of keeping the bell and keeping it safe were . . . the Geraghtys:

Despite my ancestors’ alleged connection, so far I have resisted the urge to attempt any Thomas Crown–like effort to get it back.

— Jim Geraghty writes the Campaign Spot for National Review.

Patrick Lee

Explaining what I love about Irish culture is a bit like trying to explain why I love my mother — love isn’t actually grounded on reasons (else it would be conditional) but on the person or in this case, the persons. Still: Partly because for a time Ireland’s practice of the Catholic religion was forced underground, we have a particular appreciation for the religiously visible and tangible. I’m reminded of the processions, with the great hymns proclaiming Christ’s kingship, that made the faith alive and present to me in my parish in Dallas in the early Sixties (its school was run by Irish sisters). For the Irish, the faith is something joyful, visible, and not confined to private worship places, but spills over into the street, invading our everyday actions in rosaries, medals, and signs of the cross before at-bats in baseball. Religion encompasses more than these outward expressions, of course, but since we are bodily beings (with immortal souls) and not just spirits hidden away behind bodies, such expressions are important, and in any case the less fervent of us thank God for them — and for the Irish’s part in preserving them.

— Patrick Lee is director of the Center for Bioethics and a professor of philosophy at the Franciscan University of Steubenville.

Quin Hillyer

My wife and I honeymooned in Ireland in 2002 and returned there last April for another wonderful visit, so it holds a special place in my heart. For a golfer, the dramatically rolling links at Ballybunion and the even more dramatic, catch-one’s-breath cliffside adventures at the Old Head of Kinsale are among the finest venues the ancient game can possibly offer. But what lingers most, in memories of Ireland, is the sense that in every nook and cranny, every vale and hillock — from the two small Saltee Islands in the southeast to the Cliffs of Moher in the west, from the streets of Dublin to the surprisingly steep Conor Pass across the Dingle Peninsula — is that there’s a wonderfully infectious sense of magic throughout. This isn’t magic in the sense of sprightly leprechauns; it’s more the magic of surpassingly good will from a people responding to the almost supernaturally lush greenness around them. I’ve never in my life, anywhere else, met people so universally friendly to visitors. So, all the fine things they produce — the glassware (Waterford), the lace, the china, the wool, and of course the music and beer — are not just examples of excellent craftsmanship, but of something more: They are physical manifestations, indeed celebrations, of a sense that life is well worth the effort, and should be enjoyed.

— Quin Hillyer is a contributing editor for National Review Online.

Tom Hoopes

Both my Spanish grandfather and my Iowan grandmother claimed Irish ancestry. I think they passed it on to me: I can feel it in my soul.

My mother’s favorite Daniel Patrick Moynihan quote was: “I don’t think there’s any point in being Irish if you don’t know that the world is going to break your heart eventually.”

That gets the Irish perfectly: A friend once remarked that for the Irish, Easter Sunday is a letdown after the big thrill of Good Friday. I always feel that way a little, too.

The Irish so often seem to be filled with the kind of disappointment that only lovers of beauty can feel. The big love songs we get from Ireland are haunted by regret — Van Morrison’s “Moondance” and “Brown Eyed Girl,” U2’s “With or Without You” and “One,” and everything Sinead O’Connor ever did, said, or sang.

I love James Joyce’s sad rejection of Catholicism in Portrait of the Artist and Francie Nolan’s sad nod to it in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.

I even love the irony of an ascetic saint’s life being celebrated by Shamrock Shakes and streams of beer. It fills me with melancholy. And that feels right.

— Tom Hoopes is writer in residence at Benedictine College.

Clifford D. May

You’ll perhaps not be surprised to learn that my favorite bit of Irish culture and history involves Irish whiskey, for which I developed a taste as a young foreign correspondent covering the Troubles in Northern Ireland back in 1978. But it was not until a return visit to Ireland decades later that I learned the history of the spirits of Erin. Here it is in a shot glass:

From 1850 to 1910 Irish whiskey was far more popular in America than whiskies from Scotland. But in 1914, German U-boats constrained the trans-Atlantic trade. Then, in the early 1920s, the Irish Free State was formed, and British companies, in retaliation, stopped distributing Irish whiskeys abroad. In 1920 the U.S. Congress enacted Prohibition. Phony Irish whiskey continued to be sold illegally, leaving a bad taste, literally and metaphorically, even when bars began replacing speakeasies following repeal in 1933.

That may explain why Joseph P. Kennedy, father of a teenager who would go on to become the first Irish Catholic president of the United States, traveled not to Ireland but to Scotland to buy whisky distribution rights.

When World War II began, American GIs were deployed to England and Scotland — not to neutral Ireland — where more than a few picked up the scotch habit. Over the years since, scotch’s popularity has steadily climbed.

But here’s the good news on Saint Patrick’s Day 2015: A new Golden Age of Irish whiskey has begun. Big investments have been going into four working distilleries that are again turning out premium expressions in both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.

Among my recommendations: the 18-year-old Jameson Limited Reserve; the Connemara peated single malt; the 16- and 21-year-old single malts from Bushmills; Redbreast; and Kilbeggan’s blended Irish whiskey. Sláinte!

— Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington policy institute focusing on national security. FDD’s unofficial motto: “If we don’t drink, the terrorists win.”

John J. Miller

My favorite Irish saint is not Saint Patrick, but Saint Brendan. Legend credits him with making it to the New World almost a millennium before Columbus. A decade ago, I made the case for why he, rather than Patrick, should be the patron saint of Irish America.

— John J. Miller is national correspondent for National Review.

Father Gerald E. Murray

The progress of the Catholic Church in history is best understood by looking at the lives of the saints. Their lives teach us why the Christian faith has been embraced and cherished by so many. Saints give us a reason to take the words of Christ seriously: Those words produce manifestly holy people who inspire us to live for higher things. Saint Patrick made Ireland Christian, which it fundamentally remains today. Yet the story of Ireland’s Catholic faith does not end on that island. Irish immigrants have been the main propagators of Catholicism in the English-speaking world. This providential role was given to the race of the Gaels through the tragedy of oppression and religious persecution by their neighbors. The extension of the English language to conquered Eire was the facilitating condition for the thriving of the Irish in the lands under British rule. The Irish brought their Catholic faith to our shores and helped build up a strong Church currently enjoying great influence in national life. Saint Patrick’s Day reminds us that Christianity is a gift given to peoples and nations, and this gift is preserved intact through the vigilance and suffering of those who remain faithful to Christ as they remember what the missionary Saint Patrick did for his beloved Irish, and what he inspires all believers (Irishmen especially!) to do in their turn.

— Father Gerald E. Murray is pastor of the Church of the Holy Family in Manhattan.

Thomas McArdle

The many Irish Americans who visit Ireland for a week or two of vacation get only a scent of its way of life. Four years in the Eighties as a Trinity College undergrad, often hitchhiking to and from Dublin to the border of Northern Ireland, the region where my parents came from, immersed me in a country where ten miles (Dundalk to Newry) can mean accents as different to one another as Queens vs. Kitty Hawk. Its people almost own the patent for hospitality, but it must be said that, like in so much of Europe, an ugly brand of anti-Americanism — more ethnic than political in its prejudice — is never too hard to find. In a culture that has been accused of making gossip its lifeblood, Irish conversation, in an urban pub or in a rural old lady’s sitting room, very often exceeds in beauty the famed green countryside, the medieval edifices, and the Georgian Dublin residences. The colorful metaphors, the chokingly funny jokes, whether they insult or extol, or simply observe, and the serene lilt as they pass Hibernian lips, make every Yank who has ever lived on the Celts’ island wonder what possessed him to return to the Greatest Country in the World, where we think corned beef is an Irish dish, and no one knows how to make a nice, strong pot of tea.

Thomas McArdle is a senior writer at Investor’s Business Daily.

Jay Nordlinger

There are many things I could say about the Irish — about their poetry, their land, and their lasses (all beautiful). But I would like to single out their English: the beauty of it, the musicality of it, the delightsomeness of it. I love the varieties of English, and the accents in English: from the British Isles, North America, India, and everywhere else. But I find an Irish accent as lovable as any.

Some people may respond, “But there are many accents in Ireland!” Oh, yes. But let me generalize a little today. And have a happy day.

Jay Nordlinger is a senior editor of National Review.

Michael Novak

I shall always be grateful to Ireland for a number of cultural lessons about America I had to learn. Many of us Southern or Eastern European immigrants were first taught things American by the Irish whose arrival in America had preceded us by at least two generations. If we were not in an ethnic parish of our own, most of our teachers would have been Irish Catholic nuns and most of the priests, too. The already-established lawyers, realtors, obstetricians, and undertakers were Irish. In fact, in Johnstown, Pa., when we said the “Americans” we in fact were mostly speaking about descendants of Ireland. In one school I attended, the pastor insisted on green blackboards, and insisted also that every graduate of the sixth grade perform the Irish jig; and we regularly sang those very haunting songs, from the little-known “Come Back to Erin, Mavourneen,” to “Danny Boy,” “The Rose of Tralee,” and many, many others.

I also learned how to answer quickly the jibes that Irish lads would hurl your way. Let’s say you just hit a double, or even a home run, to bring in the winning run. You could count on the Irish lad on the bench, perhaps your best friend, to say: “You sure are a sucker for outside and high,” mixed with a hearty congratulations and a pat on the back. To which you must learn to reply, “At least I hit the outside ones I swing at.”

When necessary, I even learned to go under the name O’Novak, as in winning once the 100-yard-dash at the annual Irish Day picnic.

Michael Novak is author of Writing from Left to Right and blogs at Coming Down to Earth.

Father Daniel O’Reilly

My favorite part of Irish culture and history is Ireland’s connection to the Catholic faith. Symbols of Ireland include the Celtic cross (Irish pagan religions worshiped the sun, so it was created to teach them to worship the God who created it), the shamrock (said to have been used by Saint Patrick to represent the Trinity), and Saint Patrick himself (a remarkable missionary whose effectiveness rivals that of anyone in history). While it may be an exaggeration to say that the Irish “saved” civilization, it is undeniable that Irish culture and history are inextricably linked to the One who saves.

— Father Daniel O’Reilly is administrator of Corpus Christi Church in Manhattan and director of Columbia University’s Catholic ministry.

Colin Shea

Of the many things I love about Ireland, I especially love the generous hospitality that animates the Irish people. There was many a cold, wet day, hitchhiking around Ireland as a scruffy college student, when I was not only “given a lift,” but generously taken home and given a meal and a hot cup of tea as well. I love Irish music and remember fondly many a night’s “sing-song” where everyone, tin ear or no, took a turn belting out a favorite ballad until the sun came up. The Irish love of conversation and their playfulness with language makes everyday talk in Ireland a delight. I suspect this has something to do with the country’s abundance of poets, playwrights, and writers. Once, on the outskirts of Killarney, I asked a farmer by the roadside how long a walk it was from there into town. “Sure,” he answered coyly, “just a few miles. But those are Kerry miles you understand.” “Kerry miles,” says I, “and how long are those?”, falling into his carefully laid trap. “Well, they’re a mile and a bit, but the bit might be just as much as the mile.” Maybe it’s because, as a poor nation materially for so long, the Irish people became rich in other things: hospitality, music, conversation, and a deep abiding faith. Which is, at least in part, why so many Irish Americans continue to love the country of their ancestors and celebrate that connection every Saint Patrick’s Day.  

May you always have work for your hands to do.

May your pockets hold always a coin or two.

May the sun shine bright on your windowpane.

May the rainbow be certain to follow each rain.

May the hand of a friend always be near you.

And may God fill your heart with gladness to cheer you.

– Traditional Irish Blessing

Happy Saint Patrick’s Day!

— Colin Shea writes from Boston.

Michael Walsh

The word that comes to mind about Ireland and the Irish on this Saint Patrick’s Day is indomitability. Since the arrival of the English Normans under Strongbow in the 12th century, the island has undergone a constant series of invasions and occupations by its neighbor to the east, resulting in mass murder, deprivation, starvation, coerced emigration and penal transportation, the harsh restrictions of faith and language, enforced ignorance, and the loss of all civil rights including property. England’s first and last colony is still partitioned, despite Catholic majorities in four of the six counties that make up “Northern Ireland,” although Catholics will soon be a majority in all of rump Ulster, and eventual reunification with the Republic is a foregone conclusion.

In other words, we’re still here. Proving that there’s an upside to almost everything, the Irish Diaspora — the Diaspóra na nGael — has had a significant effect on countries such as the United States (to which my own family emigrated in the late 19th century), France, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and even Britain itself, with significant Irish presences in Liverpool (Lennon and McCartney, anybody?) and in Edinburgh (birthplace of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle). The rural Irish took to urban living and quickly made the major American cities their own. They built the Erie Canal, most of the railroads, the New York City subways. They fought for the Union Army in the Civil War (“Little Phil” Sheridan), and died with Custer at the Little Bighorn. They became cops, judges, politicians, presidents; writers, actors, directors. One of them even grew up to be the founder of National Review.

Anyway, these are my thoughts on Saint Patrick’s Day, written as I look out the window, past the ruins of my great-grandmother’s birthplace, to the pounding surf of the Atlantic Ocean, and see the Cliffs of Moher, the Aran Islands, the mouth of Galway Bay and the distant hills of Connemara. Because some of us — thanks to what they accomplished — even came home.

— Michael Walsh is author of the upcoming The Devil’s Pleasure Palace: The Cult of Critical Theory and the Subversion of America.

Kevin Williamson

Ireland is the Grateful Dead of countries — it’s not the headliner itself that I object to so much as the fans, all those moon-eyed, slobbering pop mystics, all that dreadful Irish-American romanticism and its Old Éire enablers: Celtic Woman, Enya, etc., the green beer of music. (Okay, I’ll give you the Dropkick Murphys playing . . . “Scotland the Brave.”) That is of course a disservice to Irish culture, which is so often reduced to a gauzy screen on which can be projected the same mush-minded fantasies that give us such nonsense as an “African proverb” (Africa has 50-odd countries, depending on who is counting, and many more cultures than that) and environmentalist hogwash purporting to harken to “Native American beliefs” (as though the hundreds of Native American peoples shared a single belief about laundry detergent). Which is to say, what we call “Irish” is generally another example of multiculturalism-as-no-culturalism. If I thought that Saint Patrick’s Day might be an occasion for revisiting Ulysses or Krapp’s Last Tape –or, you know, thinking about the career of Saint Patrick — then I might get a little more excited about it. I might go to Mass, but I’ll be feeling like an Orangeman.

— Kevin Williamson is roving correspondent at National Review

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