Pasco, Washington — Thanks to Tri-Cities Prep, a Catholic high school here, I’ve found the St. Patrick’s Day I’ve been waiting for for many a spring.
All the way across the country from St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City, the students here are staging at Columbia Basin College the world premiere of a new musical, debuting here, The Guns of Ireland. But they are staging, too, a recovery of what many Americans have long since lost about our immigrant heritage: the sacrifice and hope.
The script for The Guns of Ireland begins with the famous quote from W. B. Yeats: “Being Irish, he had an abiding sense of tragedy, which sustained him through temporary periods of joy.”
Google that quote, and you’ll likely find it on a St. Patrick’s Day roundup from some year or another, perhaps with a picture of the wearing of the green, and with a glass of beer, also sometimes green. But The Guns of Ireland, a musical by two local writers, Jeffrey David Payne and Mike Speegle, about the 1798 Wexford Rebellion and the 1916 Easter Rising, digs in deeper to the source and sustenance of a people’s resolve in faith, fellowship, and perseverance.
‘Being Irish, he had an abiding sense of tragedy, which sustained him through temporary periods of joy.’
And despite the parade of what have become beloved Irish drinking songs, including “The Rocky Road to Dublin,” “The Wearing of the Green,” “Toora Loora Loora,” and, of course, “Danny Boy,” this isn’t nostalgia or a dry night at the pub, but a common heritage, a shared experience, a context and a buttressing at a time when people are called to stand for religious freedom. And yet this story can continue to seem both foreign and academic to many — perhaps especially for teenagers who have been raised in peace here in the American Northwest, or but whose ancestors fled what might seem like their own uniquely tribal, as it were, hardship.
These Tri-Cities families are part of a solution, perhaps even as they think they are just enjoying a high-school musical. Students with names like Sauceda, Rodriquez, and Zepeda, sing and dance and act in the most mature presentations alongside a host of students with “Anglo” names, some of whom might well be of Irish heritage.
The Guns of Ireland seems a vessel for creative and rooted healing.
Perhaps most beautifully presented are the scenes paying tribute to women. These students of a Catholic high school show the faces of women in all their dynamism, courage, and sorrow — humiliated and devastated and yet ready to lead. They hold out their arms not only to one another — in their darkest but also their most hopeful moments — but to anyone who believes that women too often are left to suffer alone. They point to community and a faith tradition that strengthens and supports, that uplifts and redeems. During a week when a prominent New York Times columnist, just in time for Mother’s Day, slammed the Catholic Church for, as his headline put it, undervaluing women, here was a tribute far beyond the caricature he laid out.
Facing inevitable farewells, two of the female leads sing:
We hope for love,
And when it comes, the joy,
It flows in endless waves.
Then Ireland calls them to their graves.
How brave we all must be.
They’ll never build a statue of me.
They’ll never build a statue of me.
This song, written and composed by Nina Powers specifically for The Guns of Ireland, stands as a tribute to quiet and graceful courage that carries on, that teaches and nourishes, just as The Guns of Ireland is doing for this group of teenagers, grappling with faith, history, and the most intimate of human emotions in the most beautiful and appropriate of ways.
As the song puts it:
It’s brave to die.
Braver still to love when the men have gone.
Brave to watch them die and still soldier on.
We honor them in death and face life on our own.
The nobility of death for faith and country is not romanticized by any stretch of the imagination. To the contrary. However, the humanity of the oppressor is also held in view from beginning to end. Father Murphy, one of the central characters in the musical, puts it this way: “If you can’t forgive them, then they can’t forgive us, and you’ll go back and forth with them across the generations, blood for blood — and this will never end. The hate will get passed down in the womb.”
This rings true, doesn’t it? In Ireland, and everywhere.
During an exchange with a British officer, a lady observes: “What’s so odd about the Irish, General, is not the way they’re brave in the face of death. . . . It’s this accursed cheerfulness at the darkest times.”
That cheerfulness is not one of green-beer buffoonery but of trust in something that endures, a life that endures. It’s the kind of thing we miss when a St. Patrick’s Day parade commentator marvels that we would celebrate on the day of someone’s death — because the commentator misses that what we are celebrating about St. Patrick is his holy life and the eternal reward he lived for.
One thinks of the Christian martyrs of our day — and the families that celebrate their willingness to die for the God who died for them rather than renounce their faith in a forced conversion. Today we see a clash between, on the one hand, faith in a God who respects our free will and, on the other, a violence that seeks sanctification in God’s name. But it’s not just Copts in Egypt. There is a kind of peace presented on stage here that could redeem the streets of Baltimore — or whatever city the next violence made worse by ideology sets aflame.
As many have sung before them, and others will sing long after them, the students of Tri-Cities Prep sing:
But if I live, and should you die for Ireland,
Let not your dying thoughts be just of me.
But say a prayer to God for dear old Ireland.
I know he’ll hear and help to set her free.
When they sing it, they seem to add: This isn’t just about Ireland. It’s about our hearts, it’s about our lives, it’s about our future, it’s where we’re going. These Tri-Cities youth are not making political statements, but they’re the hope of something better. With that song in their hearts, and this common experience rooted in history — which they’ve been working at since August — they may just set the rest of us free again, to see what real freedom is and how its possibilities can save our lives and our souls and, yes, our country.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is senior fellow at the National Review Institute, editor-at-large of National Review Online, and founding director of Catholic Voices USA. This column is based on one available exclusively through Andrews McMeel Universal’s Newspaper Enterprise Association.