Sunday, March 16, 2014

Cuimhnigh cé tusa

Tomorrow is St. Patrick's Day, but in spite of my Irish heritage, I do not plan on drinking green beer. I will not have a shamrock painted on my face.

(I abhor face-painting anyway; I am aware of the irony of someone who has tattoos eschewing body art, but I've always hated being drawn on. My mom got called in when I was in nursery school because I refused to let the teacher draw faces on my fingertips for playing Where Is Thumbkin and in fact, sat on my hands to deny her access. They couldn't understand why I wouldn't let them draw on my fingers when all the other children were allowing it. For a nursery school run by 'hippies' they sure did like to push conformity. But I digress.)

I will not wear a "Kiss Me, I'm Irish" tshirt or the "Pog Mo Thoin" model that's become popular in the last couple of years. I plan on a quiet celebration tomorrow, even though I do not begrudge those who will wave their flags and play their Clancy Brothers (or did this weekend and are still probably recovering).

Since my husband and I visited Ireland a few years ago, I haven't been able to see those green beer and gigantic green foam top hat kind of celebrations in the same light. While I've certainly enjoyed my share of rowdy gatherings in celebration of ol' Patricius, (most notably in San Francisco a few years ago, boy howdy), it's important to remember what it really means to be Irish, and it has nothing to do with getting loaded and dressing up like a leprechaun.

Back in 2005, we rented a car and drove around the south and up the west coast of Ireland winding up in Dublin, staying in small B&Bs, avoiding the places the tourists would be and choosing places to eat and stay based on the recommendations of the locals we met. You can't escape history there- it's everywhere. And even though it's been incredibly difficult for the Irish to start talking publicly about their suffering, Ireland hasn't forgotten the Famine and won't let you either, if you go to the right places.

The place where we spent our first night in country- Cobh (formerly known as Queenstown)- was Ireland's principal emigration port. More than five million people emigrated from Ireland in the nineteenth century and most of them left from Cobh.

There's a museum there called The Queenstown Story which has exhibits designed to put you in the shoes of someone leaving their home country for good, including a spooky room that will make you experience what it was like to be in the hold of a coffin ship as it lurched across the Atlantic Ocean.

Cobh is also home to St. Colman's cathedral. Many immigrants, my great-grandfather included (whose saint's name was Colman, coincidentally), sent money for its construction once they'd settled in the US, Canada or Australia.

We decided to pass on the Cliffs of Moher and went to Slea Head instead, a gorgeous cliff looking down at waves crashing up against the rocks with the ruins of Dunbeg Fort at its head. On the other side of the road is a preserved Famine Cottage where you can pay a cranky woman sitting in a booth at the foot of the drive to walk inside and get a feel for what it was like living in a cold, drafty, smoky stone building in desperate poverty.

In Westport, at the foot of Croagh Patrick is a massive iron sculpture depicting a coffin ship, the lines of the ship eerily made of skeletons tossed by the wind.

And the finale was the Strokestown Famine Museum. Representing "the first national attempt at confronting and discussing the history of the Great Irish Famine… developed… to balance the history of the 'Big House' using the original documents from the Strokestown Park Archive to tell the tenant's story. … The fact that nothing of a physical nature remains to represent the lives of the Irish tenants at the time of the Great Irish Famine further underlines the importance of the documents and letters on display." You are toured through the Big House first, the silk wallpaper, china and crystal, and fine furnishings pointed out to you by cheery guides. You see where massive dinners were held, the enormous bedrooms with their cavernous ceilings and delicate linens.

The tenants who worked the land are invisible. As the official site statement said above, the fact that there's nothing left is testament to the hard times these people faced. When we were there, there was a long hallway where documents like bills, receipts and letters were on display. There was information on the potato and details about the blight that killed it. That's about it.

(There's a restaurant on-site now, which seems a little inappropriate for a famine museum, although I am ashamed to admit we were so hungry after leaving the museum that we sought out the nearest pub down the street for sandwiches.)

Anyway, what all this leads to is the real history of what it means to be of Irish descent. It doesn't mean getting drunk and wearing green beads and shamrock-shaped sunglasses and getting in bar fights. Our American St. Patrick's Day celebrations started out as a way of acknowledging pride in an ethnic background that others derided. The first St. Patrick's Day parades were of a similar nature to Gay Pride parades- in spite of what you think of us, say about us, and how you mistreat us, we are proud of who we are. For a people who had come to this country broken and battered, facing stereotyping, discrimination and targeting by the KKK (oh yes, Catholics and especially immigrants were favorite targets) it was an enormous source of pride to march the streets wearing the green, hearing the pipes and singing the old songs.

Like so much in our country, it got bastardized and commercialized. Now we have leprechauns selling furniture.

But if you're of Irish descent, remember tomorrow that your heritage means more than just "partying."
A man named John Carberry wrote a beautiful opinion piece in my local newspaper back in 2006 that has always stuck with me. Have fun, he says, but "remember who you are. You are the product of thousands of years of Celtic determination. … It was seldom easy. At its best, it was the ancient battle to scratch a life from the earth, to beat back hunger and disease and build a culture. At its worst, it was genocide, with half of Ireland's 6 million natives killed or driven off in a single generation and much of that ancient culture erased."

Most of all, you have an obligation. As someone of Irish heritage, we have an obligation to help those who are starving like our ancestors were. We have an obligation to speak up for immigrants who have no choice but to leave their home in order to make a better life for themselves and their families, as our great-grandparents did. We have an obligation to stand up for those who are oppressed and forced to give up their culture and language the way those who came before us did.

I can't say it better than Mr. Carberry:

"When someone points out the poor or the homeless with disgust and waxes aloud about how they are the way they are because they lack the intellect or the character to improve themselves, remember you're the child of a people once made poor and homeless.

When someone tells you that some ethnic group is inherently inferior because of its alleged laziness and tendency toward violence, sexual obsession or drug addiction, remember you're the child of a people whose rights and rich culture were disregarded with these same claims."
It's our party tomorrow, my fellow Hibernians. We get the honor of watching the world celebrate our
St. Patrick and our heritage, however "misdirected and uninformed" our guests may be. But remember that with that honor comes duty. Enjoy your corned beef & cabbage and hopefully a large hunk of soda bread. May your Guinness be poured well, and your bartender not stingy with the whiskey. Sing "A Nation Once Again" at the top of your lungs and stumble your way through "Whiskey in the Jar." Please be sure you have a safe way home and be considerate of your fellow revelers. But most of all, remember who you areCuimhnigh cé tusa. Today and every day.

Carberry, John. "St. Patrick's Day: A time of honor and obligation." The Ithaca Journal. 17 March 2006: A 10. Print.