As was (and is) the case with many hardworking families in rural America, a big part of my ancestry comes from Ireland, and from the UK - not people of distinction, mind you. Just hardworking folks who came to the US looking for new opportunities, and the chance to fulfill some dreams. It is the essence of America, I believe. This welcoming national spirit on which our country was founded.
It wasn’t uncommon in the earliest days of childhood to hear stories about the Irish homeland as our family assembled for its biggest gatherings over Memorial Day, Easter, or Labor Day.
I remember the day we sent my grandmother off to Dublin for a visit to family never seen. It was so foggy that day in Memphis, the plane vanished seconds after takeoff. I was six years old and could only imagine the adventure she had ahead.
But for the longest, thoughts about the Irish ways came around infrequently. Today, depending on your culture and where you live, St. Patrick’s Day is recognized any number of ways.
In the bigger metropolitan areas like New York and Chicago where entire neighborhoods are dedicated to families of Irish immigrant ancestry, they celebrate with a day off work, and drunken parades sandwiched in between long hours of drinking green beer. Lunch or dinnertime may involve some combination of cabbage and corned beef. In Chicago, they dye an entire river green.
In the more reserved, rural areas of the US, like my original hometown of Monette, and even here in Mountain View, the traditions are a bit less party oriented. Just the opposite, in fact. My parents always considered St. Patrick’s Day as the beginning of gardening season, when after a long winter they could get their hands dirty for the first time planting a crop of potatoes and maybe some onions and lettuce.
In fact, I’ve already picked up my potato planting supply here at the Farmer’s Co-Op. Twenty pounds total of gold and red varieties. Not sure what I was thinking. It’s enough to feed an army platoon. It’s hard not getting excited about the gardening season.
One of the best whimsical decisions my wife and I ever made was two years ago during a time of service in Santiago de Compostela, Spain when we realized we had about six consecutive days off work at Pilgrim House, and we made a quick trip to Ireland. It was honestly four or five of the best days we’ve ever enjoyed together.
Driving in a new country is always an adjustment. Arriving in Dublin, this one was greater than most. Irish drive on the left side of the road, their vehicles are made with the driver compartment on the right side, and if you’re driving a stick shift which is quite common, you’re shifting with your left hand. For a Yank, it’s about as backwards as the driving experience gets. Put yourself in a roundabout, and you are thinking backwards in about four directions simultaneously. Some marriages do not survive Irish driving tours.
We stood on the Cliffs of Moher, one of those moments where I closed my eyes, breathed in the sea air, and took a mental image that will last forever. Had fish and chips at a seaside cafe that couldn’t have held more than eight people.
In Galway, I watched a foursome play golf in a 50-mile per hour howling seaside wind, flagsticks bent almost to the ground. And they were so happy to be out there it was like just another spring day.
Had a nice bowl of Guinness stew, and a lively Saturday night in a pub with some Belfast locals who gave me drinking tips as we shared tall tales. Their recommendation for a “hot whiskey” was just the ticket for a weary traveler that night before bed time.
And in the small bayside village near Sligo, I stepped out of my comfort zone to enjoy oysters caught by an old man in a rowboat just a couple of hours earlier. They were as fresh as the North Atlantic on spring day.
Closer to home, we know the simple truth that St. Patrick’s day signals the beginning of spring. A season that reminds us how all things can be new again, and the importance of second and third chances to get things right. It is indeed, the essence of the Gospel message about redemption and a new way forward.
I’ll leave you with my favorite old Irish blessing. It’s prominently framed near the corner wood stove in our cabin.
May the road rise up to meet you.
May the wind always be at your back.
May the sun shine warm upon your face;
the rains fall softly upon your fields,
and until we meet again,
may God hold you in the hollow of his hand.
See you in next week’s newspaper.