Tell me the tales that to me were so dear… I was born to the green, but it’s been years since my family fussed about St. Patrick’s Day. Our celebrations ended when my grandmother, Maude, passed away. She was the grandchild of famine Irish, and was born in an American community 30 years after the Great Hunger ended. That community was so insular that, despite never setting foot in Ireland, her speech mirrored the soft lilting brogue of those born to the sod. She also retained that curious fusion of religion and superstition that some immigrants never put behind them, and, perhaps by osmosis, absorbed that community’s absolute contempt for all things British. Until the day she died, Maude could never bring herself to speak kindly of the English and, had it been in her power, would have pinned the death of all the martyrs in the “Lives of the Saints” on them.
Like many Irish widows she attended daily Mass and thought the aforementioned book, with it’s graphic depictions of martyrdom, was a great picture book for children to thumb through. Fortunately, I was into guts and glory, and other than the martyrdom of Bartholomew, which even at a tender age I thought to be excessive, I survived with my psyche relatively intact. At least I think I did. I also think Irish grandmothers are gifted with a special gene for storytelling that embraces tales of dark and light.
Maude’s tales of light were lyrical but those from her dark side were riveting. She spoke of banshees and sin eaters and the terrible wrath of the Dark Man, but she wove these fiercesome creatures into lyrical tales of such beauty and redemption that they’d make you gasp as your heart skipped a beat.
And, thanks to Maude, ordinary words like hunger, troubles and drink assumed new meaning and came to life for us, as did the reality of the coffin ships that carried famine Irish to their deaths in the depths of an ocean they probably could not name. Only Christmas and Easter were more important to her than St. Patrick’s Day, a feast so special that we’d head downtown to see the parade and watch the Chicago river run green. Later, there would, of course, be soda bread and colcannon and a bread pudding so soaked in Jamesons, that sobriety tests would probably be failed.
Once Maude passed, we put aside the trappings of St. Patrick’s Day, and made a conscious decision to, instead, celebrate the Irish, and by extension, all immigrants, who braved the coffin ships to make new homes across the sea. Seven million souls were driven from that island in the Irish Sea. Another million died of starvation in a passive genocide of which no one speaks or seems to care. They spread across the continents and wrested something from nothing. It took some time, but they were successful where ever they chose to settle. They survived, “Irish need not apply.” They endured, “Irish keep the pigs in the parlor.” They triumphed and finally were able to hang lace curtains at their windows. They even managed to put a fine Irish lad in the White House.
In our house, St. Patrick’s Day serves as a reminder of cruelty in the extreme and the capability of the human spirit to overcome, endure and triumph. It is a day of excess, but it also serves as a reminder of how far immigrant communities have come and I’ll lift my glass to that any day. Erin go bragh! May the river always run green.