Ireland’s gift to the world
But not all luck is good luck. Though today’s festivals are indeed happy, the origins are somber and, in some ways, tragic.
Many of this paper’s readers know that the day is named after the man who is credited for converting Ireland to Christianity. Fewer realize that Patrick was a Welsh Roman citizen who was kidnapped as a youth, held as a slave in Ireland, but who later escaped and returned to his home to become a priest. Still fewer people know that Patrick was not the first Christian missionary to Ireland. But Patrick, given his several years in captivity, was able to effectively communicate and persuade the Irish to re-examine their beliefs and to embrace Christianity.
But does the reader realize that how today we celebrate St. Patrick’s Day originated not in Ireland but in New York City? While Ireland’s national holiday up through the mid-20th century was a relatively quiet day at church, the Irish diaspora around the world was meanwhile turning the day into something quite else.
On St. Patrick’s Day, 1762, Irish soldiers stationed in New York City organized a march with the shamrock clovers in their lapels to differentiate themselves from other British troops. The notion struck the expatriate Irish so well that it eventually became a tradition for St. Patrick’s Day parades elsewhere. Eventually, the parade tradition spread throughout the United States and Canada. Eventually the notion expanded to other major destinations of Irish emigrants.
But this simple history does not explain why these festivals are so popular. There are several reasons. Let’s start with the tragic, then move on to the happier causes.
The Irish and their descendants can be found around the world in surprisingly large numbers for such a small country. Most Irish ethnic families like to think that their ancestors left Ireland for better opportunities. But most often the truth was that the Irish have been forced by dire circumstances to leave their homes. Irish peasants were too often faced with the choice to starve or emigrate as the result economic and political mismanagement by local and colonial governments.
While the potato blight is blamed for the widespread famine of the 1840s and 1850s, less well recognized is that during the same period, Ireland was a rich exporter of food to England and English colonies. Furthermore, many Irish fled due to political repression, as was the case of one of my ancestors who was threatened with colonial imprisonment for the offense of secretly teaching children the native Irish language.
So there is indeed melancholy in the bedrock of the overseas Irish communities. As the late, great Irish-American U.S. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan once put it, “To be Irish is to know the world will break your heart.”
But there is another kind of Irish melancholy - a seductive kind found in its arts. Like other Celtic cultures, the Irish delight in taking something simple and turning even the most humble of creations into intricate works. A common visual representation is the Celtic cross with its highly detailed, seeming infinitely braided embellishments. Or when listening to Irish songs by traditional musicians, one cannot simply hum along accurately. One can only follow the general melodies while the musicians provide often nearly mind-boggling flourishes as a matter of course.
You see, there is a philosophical background to that beautiful intricacy. It’s a form of meditative introspection. From the study and application of that endless detail in execution, one cannot help pondering the other mysteries of life - and of death. So it’s only natural there is at least a subtle melancholy to even the most cheerful of Irish tunes that gives remarkable depth. An example commonly recognized in Korea is the Irish melody, “Danny Boy.” One cannot help but feel both joy and sadness when listening to that song.
So as the Irish were forced away from their homelands, they unintentionally imparted the bitter sweetness of the Irish heart to their overseas neighbors. The Irish know that sadness awaits us all. So, if there is an opportunity for joy, one owes it to oneself to laugh, sing, dance and, yes, drink, to one’s heart’s content. As the saying goes, “No one parties like the Irish.” They do indeed. But they do so from a depth that is much more profound than green beer and cartoonish leprechauns. The Irish know misery while wholeheartedly embracing life’s joys. And that enthusiasm for a good time while sharing their music and other arts has made the overseas Irish welcomed ambassadors of a small European country otherwise isolated on the rain-swept edge of Europe.
Now that St. Patrick’s Day (March 17) is upon us, I hope you may find some way to take in some Irish “craic,” or “fun,” during the day. We never know what tomorrow may bring, but with friends and loved ones, we can live to the fullest for today - and that is what St. Patrick’s Day is all about. Slainte! (“To health!” Ireland’s favorite toast.)
*The author is president of Soft Landing Consulting, international sales consulting firm, and prior chair of the Irish Association of Korea.
BY Tom Coyner