It is hard to believe but celebration of the patron saint of Ireland is more boisterous far outside its green shores. While nominally a feast day on the liturgical calendar of the Roman Catholic Church, it has become a major day for people to get together and party. Being Irish is not required but does lend authenticity to saying you are actually a descendent of the Emerald Isle rather than just adopting it for a day.
Of course many Irish left that fair isle long ago. Jobs were few and many people starved. And freedom to starve is not much freedom which is why many Irishmen had to serve in the military of their oppressor. Some came to America as my great-great (and more but you get the point)did to start a new life. He was recruited in Ireland to join the Union Army during the American Civil War. He served two tours, was a musician, and his papers showed he was a tall man. And he started a new life here in America leaving Ireland behind for good. He never went back. My grandfather was often asked because of his Irish last name whether he was Irish.”No, American,” he would say. It was something his grandfather said and was passed down. He never thought himself Irish or Irish American, just American.
St. Patrick’s Day was not treated as a day to get drunk or eat too much food (it is the Lenten season after all). Instead it was simply quiet reflection, a prayer of thanks, and a delicious meal with family. And family is what is it all about. Not about green milkshakes or wearing green, drinking vast amounts of beer. Like Christmas which has its secular and spiritual markers, so it is with St.Patrick. The faithful honor St. Patrick while others have a party. To each his own.
One of the sad remnants though of the migration out of Ireland is that today Ireland, outside of the major and smaller communities, is very empty. You cannot shake the feeling when you see that emptiness how bad it must have been for whole communities to evaporate leaving perhaps just the oldest behind who for one reason or another choose to stay. Today in the United States you can see this process underway in the many dwindling rural communities in the Midwest or in old cities that were once giants in the land slowly shrinking as people leave for other opportunities.
Here is an old tune from the Emerald Isle, known as The Minstrel Boy. The full lyrics can be found here.The tune was quite popular (and still is) and the opening is often heard more than the full song:
The minstrel boy to the war is gone,
In the ranks of death you’ll find him;
His father’s sword he has girded on,
And his wild harp slung behind him;
“Land of Song!” said the warrior bard,
“Though all the world betrays thee,
One sword, at least, thy rights shall guard,
One faithful harp shall praise thee!”
The first is a wonderful rendition using Irish traditional musical instruments. And the second is from a more modern source (and set in the future) from Star Trek:The Next Generation episode The Wounded where the song has an important role. Chief O’Brien uses the tune to remind his old captain of his duty and what he has done.