Nothing Quite Like St. Patrick's Day
We are a country of immigrants.
This thought is much on our minds these days, and in our arguments and debates, whether or not we spend time on ancestry.com.
This week, we are for a wee time celebrating a group of immigrants, always visible and deep in our national memory, that came crashing onto our shores in huge numbers — some two million in the wake of a national and world disaster, the great potato famine of the 1840s and 1850s.
They came, most of them, impoverished. They were generally derided as criminals and drunks and often caricatured as something less than human. Some things don’t change.
They were the Irish, the Catholics and the Protestants, the poor and the penniless, looking for a better life. They came on voyages across the Atlantic that many did not survive. They came and became laborers and miners, maids and mill workers, song and dance vaudevillians, policemen and politicians and presidents. No doubt some of them dreamed of becoming enriched, but in total and in time, they enriched us more, as immigrants often do.
They made an impression, that’s for sure. Many immigrant groups have their holidays, their celebrations of themselves, from Columbus Day to Bastille Day, Cinco de Mayo to Octoberfest. But none has anything quite like St. Patrick’s Day, March 17, which is tomorrow, but which always is preceded — as it was this past Sunday in Washington, D.C. — by a St. Patrick’s Day Parade. Even Ireland's Prime Minister Enda Kenny and other Irish pols are visiting Capitol and the White House. It's an annual visit.
Mostly an American practice and celebration, the popularity of St. Patrick’s Day has ebbed and flowed through the years of our American life.
In the 1970s and 1980s, St. Patrick’s Day in the big cities of America, including Washington, was celebrated with a fervor that likely went beyond the boundaries of good taste and civil behavior. It involved Irish bars and bartenders, the imbibing of Guinness and shots of beer, the wearing of the green, green this and that, and dancing and fiddle music by local musicians.
At least that’s what I dimly remember from the days of my youth, when I was introduced to Irish bars and St. Patrick’s Day in San Francisco by a lass named Margie O’Clair, who failed to warn me that wearing an orange-colored jacket might be problematic (the color being a reminder of the civil strife which was still a part of Irish history, memory and politics).
Be that as it may, things surely have become a little more civilized and modern, although there are still classic Irish establishments of significant duration around, notably the Dubliner and Kelly’s Irish Times, Nanny O’Brien’s, Fado and Billy Martin’s Tavern, the oldest such establishment extant in Washington, right here in Georgetown.
To many of us, the Irish — here and abroad — are about words and music, the music of the fiddle, of U2 and the Cranberries and the fabled Irish Connection, which, in the 1980s, played in a nexus of places going back and forth from New York and featured singer Andy O’Brien, accordion player Bill McComiskey and the red-haired, often brilliant fiddle player Brendan Mulvihill, who could play Irish rebel songs and make them sound like jazz.
But the lineage of the Irish — even if the Emerald Isle should somehow disappear from the geography of the world — traces and repeats itself in words, in stories and poems, in plays and novels, onstage, between the pages of a book or writ large on your Kindle. All the clichés of the Irish were embedded on screen — especially in classic films by director John Ford and starring the flaming lassie Maureen O’Hara (from the Abbey Theatre, no less). They worked with the likes of John Wayne (not Irish) and Victor McLaglen and Barry Fitzgerald in the most vividly Irish movie ever, “The Quiet Man.”
But the words, the words are forever things. The lineup is long, and long-lasting, going from Oliver Goldsmith to Jonathan Swift to George Bernard Shaw to Oscar Wilde to (yes) Bram Stoker, W. B. Yeats, James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, Martin McDonagh, Roddy Doyle, Brendan Behan, Sean O’Casey, Claire Kilroy, Flann O’Brien, John Millington Synge, Brian Friel and Seamus Heaney, and to our very own haunted Irishman of the stage, Eugene O’Neill.
If there seems to be an abundance of playwrights in this list, it is because we remember words said and played and acted in the guise of human beings and characters the most — as we remember Shakespeare and Sophocles the most, although neither were Irish. In plays, everyone gets to be a Protestant and a Catholic, but also a gentleman and a boor, a fool and a villain, with a particularly Irish disposition and temperament.
I remember a scene from Tom Stoppard’s “Travesties” that used James Joyce as a character. In it, Joyce, who once performed in a Swiss Embassy production of Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest,” was sued for failing to return his costume. He was asked by a British interrogator the question “What did you do in the Great War, Mr. Joyce?” and replied: “I wrote ‘Ulysses.’ What did you do?”
To which we can only say: yes, yes, Yes.
Happy St. Patrick’s Day.