I am teetotally crazy about most all things Irish. Not just “pert near” or “near ‘bout” but “smack dab” crazy about them! So you can figure that I go all out for St. Patrick’s Day on March 17.
I first visited Ireland in 2000 when my oldest daughter Meghann qualified to dance in an eight-hand (group figure dance) at the annual World Championships of Irish Dance. She was asked to compete in that event again in 2003. In 2008, I went back when my son Elijah qualified to dance solo at Worlds.
They say the third time’s the charm, but I’m longing to take that fourth trip to the Emerald Isle. Somehow, it felt like home to me. Perhaps it’s my Scotch-Irish blood. (And to the reader who corrected me many years ago for not using “Scots-Irish,” asserting that “Scotch” can only refer to the beverage, please be sure to continue reading.)
I am no expert on Ireland, but I would like to clear up some common misconceptions. For one thing, although the name Ireland refers to the entire island, there are really two Irelands on the isle. There’s the Republic of Ireland and then there’s Northern Ireland, which is a part of the United Kingdom. The Republic is much larger and officially is called simply “Ireland.”
We crossed the border between the two countries several times with no issues, barely even noticing we’d changed countries—unlike going from the U.S. to Canada or Mexico. There were lovely people and places in both countries, but my family much preferred the Republic where we felt a delightful freedom, openness and friendliness.
My Scotch-Irish ancestors (and many of yours) emigrated in the 1600s from Scotland to what is now Northern Ireland and three counties from what is currently the Republic. Most of them did so for economic opportunities and freedom from the control of the strong Episcopal Church in Scotland. They stayed in Ireland long enough to consider it home before they began emigrating to America in droves on the old paths. One of their favorite destinations was North Carolina.
(As for the term “Scotch-Irish,” it has been used throughout history, notably in a letter from Queen Elizabeth I and in documents from early American figures such as Alexander Hamilton. The term has been the primary usage in America for the past 300 years; the original immigrants themselves used
it to refer to themselves. It may be the more archaic form, but the term is still correct.)
The part of Ireland from which my ancestors came is home to many sites that relate to St. Patrick. Did you know he wasn’t even Irish? He was English—carried off to Ireland in the early 400’s at age 16 by Irish pirates. After he later escaped to return to his homeland, he claims he heard God call him back to Ireland as a missionary to that primarily pagan land.
And no, St. Patrick was not necessarily Catholic, as many people assume. The Catholics did adopt him as a saint, although it was never made official by Rome, and they assert that his grandfather was a Catholic priest. However, there is also evidence that his grandfather was simply a clergyman in the ancient Church of Britain, which had not yet come under the rule of Rome and the resultant Catholicism.
Whether or not St. Patrick was Catholic doesn’t matter to me. His own writings recommend him to me as a devoted man of God regardless of denomination. I have attended an Easter service at the little stone church in Saul (County Down, Northern Ireland) on the site of his first sermon. I climbed the Hill of Slane where he dared to light a bonfire on Easter Eve, in defiance of the laws of the pagan High King of Ireland whose own fire was burning on the Hill of Tara. I laid a yellow daffodil on the stone that covers what is allegedly St. Patrick’s grave at Down Cathedral in Downpatrick, County Down.
I am convinced this man was a true Christian apostle.
Did he drive the snakes out of Ireland? Probably not, since historians believe Ireland had no snakes in the first place—not even a fossil record of the reptile.
Why no snakes? First of all, Ireland is an island with cold ocean waters surrounding it; snakes can’t generally swim that far in the often-frigid temperatures. Yes, Great Britain is an island, too, but had a 2000-year longer history of a land bridge with mainland Europe which afforded snakes more time to slither across.
However, the fact that there are still no snakes thriving in the wild in Ireland seems a bit miraculous. According to Popular Science magazine, pet snakes became very popular on the island in the late 1900’s, and many of them were eventually released into the countryside. Yet none of them seem to have taken hold to become part of Irish wildlife.
Maybe St. Patrick banishing the snakes from Ireland IS more than just a myth after all. Who knows? Hawaii doesn’t have snakes either, so we’ll leave that subject alone.
Nonetheless, tomorrow is the day we call St. Patrick’s Day—not the day of his birth, but the day of his death. So for all of you Scotch-Irish people, celebrate your heritage! For the rest of you, be sure to wear something green to avoid the inevitable pinching that will ensue if you don’t (a purely American tradition that dates back to the 1700’s).
However, I caution you to remember that according to the rules for pinching (yes, they exist), green eyes, green hair ties/barrettes, and green nail polish do not count. As for that green underwear you SAY you are wearing, forget it. If we can’t see it, we don’t believe it. Consider yourself pinched, but have a Happy St. Patrick’s Day nonetheless!
Leslie Bray Brewer can be emailed at email@example.com. Her blog is at http://timesofrefreshingontheoldpaths.wordpress.com.