Wherever green is worn

March 17, 2009 § 3 Comments

On Things Irish and the Celebration of St. Patrick

by Larkin Vonalt

So many things about the celebration of St. Patrick’s Day in America bother me, and I have not been good company, watching throngs of green-attired Americans from the sidewalks, going from bar to bar in Boston, or Butte or Chicago. My friends used to say, “Lighten up, have another beer.”

The very last night I spent publicly celebrating the wearing of the green culminated in watching drunken young men urinate off the awning of the M&M Restaurant onto the crowd below. That’s it, I thought, there must be a way to mark St. Patrick’s Day that does not involve green wigs, green beer or puking.

The year before last we did return to Butte to watch the beautiful daughters of Sullivan-Daley clan, dear friends all, dance the parade route. I wore a green ribbon in my hair, and my Chinese husband had on a small button that read “Irish, sorta.” They say that on St. Patrick’s Day that everyone is Irish, and for many Americans that is literally as well as figuratively true.

In this country, we celebrate a number of holidays that find their roots in our ancestral cultures: Cinco de Mayo, Oktoberfest, Chinese New Year. But Hallmark doesn’t market cards for those occasions, and no city dyes her river, and Americans don’t make such perfect asses of themselves as they do for St. Patrick’s Day. It seems a strange way to pay homage to a complicated people with such a complicated history, who despite or because of the struggles have given us a legacy of literature and music quite apart from any other.

Unlike my friend who sends me excerpts from the Irish Times, and brings me Irish tea and Irish socks and Irish linen and writes an excellent online journal about the Irish diaspora in Montana ( http://montanagael.blogspot.com/ ) I know almost nothing about Ireland. You don’t have to know much to begin to understand how intensely tangled a thing it is to be Irish. Even when I was just 19, and passionately interested in the hunger strike and eventual death of IRA activist (and MP) Bobby Sands in the Long Kesh outside of Belfast, I couldn’t figure out if he was a villain or a hero. Nearly 30 years later, I am still no clearer in my understanding.

This ongoing struggle between Protestant and Catholic, Loyalists and Irish Republicans is found even in what the “wearing of the green” is supposed to stand for. Originally, the color associated with the Catholic Feast Day for St. Patrick was blue. “Wearing of the green” refers to the wearing of a shamrock on your clothing, to show your Irish nationalism or at times, to show your loyalty to the Roman Catholic Church. (St. Patrick, who lived 385- 461 A.D., used the three-leafed Shamrock to explain the Holy Trinity to the pre-Christian Irish.)

Some Protestant Irish have taken to wearing Orange on St. Patrick’s Day as a sign of rebellion, drawing from William of Orange (the King of England) who defeated King James II, a Roman Catholic, at the Battle of Boyne in Dublin in 1688, ensuring a Protestant (and English) military dominance in Ireland, and creating tension that has existed ever since. Yes, ever since. 320 years.

I don’t exactly know how it is that I never went to Ireland. I went other places that meant less. Italy, for instance. I could have skipped those months in Italy altogether for a few days on Wicklow Head and been the better for it. I wept on the grave of James Joyce, still in self-imposed exile in Zurich. It was only 600 miles more to Dublin. If James and Nora could manage it in the twenties, well surely, I could have made the effort. I didn’t.

Joyce wasn’t the only Irish writer that stirred my heart. Oscar Wilde had been a favorite since high school. How could you fail to find amusement and encouragement in quips like “Always forgive your enemies; nothing annoys them so much,” or “Biography lends to death a new terror,” or “If you want to tell people the truth, make them laugh, otherwise they’ll kill you.”

William Butler Yeats rounds out a trilogy for me. I named my thoroughbred mare “Pilgrim Soul” for a phrase in his poem “When You Are Old.” This is the stanza:

How many loved your moments of glad grace,

And loved your beauty with love false or true,

But one man loved the pilgrim Soul in you,

And loved the sorrows of your changing face;

Yeats’ most famous poem is without question “Easter 1916” about the week-long Irish uprising. His ambivalence about the use of violence to achieve home rule is clear in every line. And so too, is his utter grief at the outcome.

And so, I no longer really celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, so much as I mark it, acknowledge it, carry it in my heart, which if in reality is only a very very small part Irish, is wholly Eireannach for this one day. 

In the morning, I will arise and go now (not to Innisfree) but down the stairs, dressed quietly, a dark moss green merino sweater. Breakfast won’t be much, Barry’s tea with milk and sugar in my usual leaf green mug. (No doubt the boy will wear something very green so as not to be pinched at school.) In the kitchen, I’ll choose music with an ear to the day: The Pogues, The Waterboys, Sinead O’Connor, Van Morrison, U2.

I interviewed U2 in 1981 when we were all just pups, and they were playing in bars and opening for bands like J. Geils. Bono predicted their phenomenal success, we wished it for them but did not believe it. It disappoints me now how they have squandered it, with missions that are only about Bono’s ego and every record a re-hash of the one before it. Never mind, who knows what any of us would do with that sort of success?

Lunch will be simple. Potato Soup with brown bread and a Guinness. Perhaps in the afternoon, there will be time to peruse the Irish Times or curl in a chair to revisit William Butler Y. Dinner is the more complicated Limerick Ham. You didn’t think Corned beef and cabbage did you? Corned beef is not even Irish, but Irish-American. Immigrants in New York, looking for a cheaper alternative to the traditional bacon or sausage, turned to Jewish butchers, who provided them with the pickled brisket we associate with the 17th day of March.

My husband had an interesting question about the fact that St. Patrick’s Day falls during Lent, when many Roman Catholics have given up eating meat. Apparently, there is a special dispensation from the Bishop to allow for eating meat on the Feast Day of St. Patrick, and this has worked pretty well except for the very rare occurrence when St. Patrick’s Day actually falls during Holy Week and they have less wiggle room.

Limerick Ham is usually a cured leg of pork, traditionally smoked over Juniper branches. Okay, so no juniper branches and a leg of pork is a bit much for the three of us, so we adapt and cook a small smoked ham, first by boiling in apple cider and then finishing in the oven, and served with an accompaniment of potatoes and cabbage, with burnt oranges to finish.

Burnt Oranges

4 Large oranges

5 ounces sweet white wine

1 tablespoon butter

half-cup sugar

10 ounces fresh-squeezed orange juice

2 tablespoons Irish Whiskey (warmed)

Carefully peel the oranges thinly. Then with a sharp knife remove as much of the pith and white skin as possible, keeping the oranges intact. Cut the thin peel into fine strips and cover with sweet white wine. Put the oranges into an ovenproof dish. Put a little butter on top of each one, pressing it down gently, then sprinkle each one with a teaspoon of sugar. Put into a 400F oven for 10 minutes or until the sugar caramelizes.

Meanwhile mix the orange juice with the sugar in a saucepan and bring to the boil. Lower the heat and let it get syrupy, without stirring. Add the orange peel and wine mixture and bring to the boil again, then cook rapidly to reduce and thicken slightly.

Take the oranges from the oven and if not fully browned, put under a moderate broiler for a few minutes. Pour the warmed whisky over them and set it alight, over heat. As the flames die down, add the orange syrup and let it simmer for about 2 minutes. Serve at once.

Perhaps a glass of Bushmill’s while clearing up, listening to the boy practicing the cello in the next room. Settling on the velvet sofa to watch a movie, maybe The Crying Game (exploring the themes of race, gender, sexuality and nationality against the backdrop of the Irish troubles) or Michael Collins, about the Easter 1916 uprising. Perhaps neither, perhaps simply to bed instead, taking the green ribbon from my hair, the words of Yeats running through me like a long deep river.

Too long a sacrifice

Can make a stone of the heart.

O when may it suffice?

That is Heaven’s part, our part

To murmur name upon name,

As a mother names her child

When sleep at last has come

On limbs that had run wild.

What is it but nightfall?

No, no, not night but death;

Was it needless death after all?

For England may keep faith

For all that is done and said.

We know their dream; enough

To know they dreamed and are dead;

And what if excess of love

Bewildered them till they died?

I write it out in a verse –

MacDonagh and MacBride

And Connolly and Pearse

Now and in time to be,

Wherever green is worn,

Are changed, changed utterly:

A terrible beauty is born.

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§ 3 Responses to Wherever green is worn

  • Elmer Lieu says:

    Beautiful and touching!

  • Jeff says:

    The Waterboys! What a great group. Another Irish group I liked was the Hothouse Flowers. It’s funny that of all the Irish nostalgia and stereotypes the media product that most endeared me to the place was The Committments, about a band forming and breaking up.

    Hmm…I guess it’s the music I like the most about the place.

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