Thursday, March 4, 2010

Erin Go Bragh

We will soon celebrate the feast day of St. Patrick, patron saint of Ireland. Patrick was born in the later half of the 4th century AD. There are differing views about the exact year and place of his birth. According to one school of opinion, he was born about 390 A.D., while the other school says it is about 373 AD. Again, his birth place is said to be in either Scotland or Roman England. His real name was probably Maewyn Succat. Though Patricius was his Roman name, he came to be familiar to us as Patrick. Patrick was the son of Calpurnius, a Roman-British army officer, stationed in Britian. One day a band of pirates landed in south Wales and kidnapped this boy along with many others. Then they sold him into slavery in Ireland.

Patrick escaped and made his way to France where he joined a monastery and studied under St. Germain, the bishop of Auxerre. When he became a bishop he dreamed that the Irish were calling him back to Ireland to tell them about God. So he set out for Ireland with the Pope's blessings. There he converted the Gaelic Irish, who were then mostly Pagans, to Christianity. There are many legends associated with St Patrick. It is said that he used the three-leafed shamrock to explain the concept of the Trinity; which refers to the combination of Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit. Legend also has it that Saint Patrick put the curse of God on venomous snakes in Ireland and drove them into the sea where they drowned. Patrick's mission in Ireland lasted for over 20 years. He died on March 17, AD 461. That day has been commemorated as St. Patrick's Day ever since.

As a kid, I grew up in an ethnically mixed neighborhood, but in the church I attended, Our Lady of Lourdes, the dominant influence were the Irish. They had preceded the Italians in the great immigration waves of the late 1800's and early 1900's that deposited so many new inhabitants on our shores. Back then primarily Irish priests presided in Brooklyn parishes and ours was no exception. The laity of our church were mostly Irish too...God fearing people whose pious women starched and ironed priestly vestments and altar linens, and whose red-faced, white-haired men served as ushers and maintenance men. St. Patrick's day was a really big deal for them, and every year the parish hosted a party to celebrate the event in the church basement.

The affair was about what you'd expect. Corned beef and cabbage of course washed down by endless pitchers of beer. I don't believe they served hard liquor but I'm sure many a flask of rye found its way into that low-ceilinged ballroom. The main entertainment at the party was the Lourdes boys' choir, of which I'm proud to say I was a member. We dressed in white shirts, and for this special night, traded our royal blue school ties for ones of bright green. On the makeshift stage, they had set up bleachers of a sort for us to stand on so that we were arranged in rows, with the sopranos up front and the older boys, whose voices were already changing and prone to cracking, hidden in the back rows.

Our choirmaster, Brother Justinian, had rehearsed us well and led us now in song, his stern face topped by jet black hair combed straight back. We sang the Irish classics like: My Wild Irish Rose ▪ I’ll Take You Home Again, Kathleen ▪ McNamara’s Band ▪ When Irish Eyes Are Smiling ▪ Too-ra-loo-Ra -Loo-ral ▪ Did Your Mother come From Ireland, and our big closer that never failed to reduce all those Irish lads and lassies to tears, Oh Danny Boy. We always received huge ovations, part appreciation for our rousing singing and part relief that the glasses could now be refilled. We were allowed to stay and enjoy the party for a while, and I learned to my surprise that Brother Justinian had a whole other side to him. This gifted organist and pianist, once lubricated by a few beers, sat down at the piano and brought down the house with everything from pop to classics.

Growing up in Brooklyn, the Irish and Italians didn't always see eye to eye, but I have come to respect them. They are a good people whose migration to America was spurred by hardship and poverty back in the Motherland. I learned more about how grim life in Ireland was from reading marvelous books like "Angela's Ashes" by Frank McCourt. To all my Irish friends, I celebrate you as a people and wish you a happy St. Patrick's Day. For a gift I offer you the old Irish blessing: "May the road rise to meet you: May the wind be always at your back, The sun shine warm upon your face, The rain fall soft upon your fields, And until we meet again May God hold you in the hollow of his hand."


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1 comment:

The Whiner said...

Funny I read that piece of information about St Patrick using the clover to explain the Trinity someplace else this morning. I had never heard that in all these years. I emailed a couple of my fellow mothers of clover-leaf shaped-head children and said that maybe God shaped their little heads like clovers so we'd know that God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit would be always be watching over them. We all agreed we would have a preferred a more subtle hint - like finding a Holy Card on the floor - but oh well!