The Catholic Thing
St Patrick was an Irishman Print E-mail
By Ralph McInerny   
Tuesday, 17 March 2009

The other day I picked up my granddaughters after their step dancing class. At Notre Dame, home of the Fighting Irish, one of the most popular courses at the moment is in the Irish language. There is something atavistic about being Irish. How many Americans are busy tracing their lineage back to the bogs and greenery of the Emerald Isle? My brother Steve, who often golfs in Ireland, discovered our great-grandfather’s baptismal certificate in a little town on the west coast, not far from Ennis, and reacted as if he had found the Book of Kells.

Now, as Dr. Johnson observed, the Irish are an honest race, they never speak well of one another. The first time I visited Ennis I went into a bar called McInerny’s and, sipping my Guinness, told the woman who served me that I too was a McInerny. She stepped back and snapped, “There are two separate McInerny clans here. We never speak to one another.” Ah, I thought, relatives.

In the Middle Ages, Irish monks were almost nomadic. Manuscripts in their distinctive hand show up everywhere. Malachy spun tales for Bernard of Clairvaux, which that saintly soul dutifully recorded in his life of Malachy. Earlier, John Scotus Erigena, whose names translates John Irish Irish, went to the Carolingian court, exhibiting a knowledge of Greek that had become a rarity on the continent. You will have heard of the book that claims that the Irish saved civilization. From what is unclear.

The shameful record of the English in Ireland lives in infamy. It is painful to read in Walter Scott’s diary of his trip to Ireland. He describes the people as carefree and smiling, happy-go-lucky, a land of Stepinfetchits. Anthony Trollope spent years in Ireland and married an Anglo-Irish girl. His first novel and his last, unfinished, are set in Ireland. He shows some sympathy with the downtrodden race, but Chesterton, bless him, roundly condemned his country’s record in Ireland. Those who fled the Potato Famine were, thanks to the British, all but illiterate. No wonder Irish immigrants were regarded as subhuman by Yankees. The sanctimonious Henry Thoreau, rusticating at Walden Pond, but spending weekends in Concord, refers disdainfully to those digging a new canal. I think of that when I listen to the Irish Tenors sing “The Old Bog Road.”

Archbishop John Ireland, the great prelate of St. Paul, started several country towns in western Minnesota to get the Irish out of the wicked cities in the east. My forbears lived in one of them, De Graf, and my wife was born in another, Graceville. My grandfather, a Minneapolis alderman, became a Republican because the archbishop was one. Ireland was a teetotaler and a great advocate of total abstinence. Although he would never have entered one of the Blarney Stone bars in New York, he would have understood the legend seen there. “God created whisky so the Irish wouldn’t rule the world.”

I was raised to think of Ireland as a land of saints. It is certainly a land of writers. The Anglo-Irish first, of course. Swift and Sheridan, Shaw and Wilde, Synge and Yeats. Then came the flood of Irish Irish writers, most notably James Joyce who was of course ambivalent toward his country and his faith. The stories in Dubliners were meant as portraits of a thwarted people and yet, when “The Dead,” the longest of the stories, was made into a movie by the great John Huston, who had a farm in Ireland, it was received as a nostalgic tribute to a lost time. Writing English better than the English could be seen as a subjected people’s ultimate revenge on their oppressors. Among the natives the greatest now is the poet Seamus Heaney, but think of all the Irish-American writers. F. Scott Fitzgerald, foremost in his generation, and that fashioner of exquisite short stories, J. F. Powers. And Flannery O’Connor is ours. Add your favorites.

The Church, politics, and pugilism were means whereby the Irish rose. You didn’t have to be Irish to be made a bishop but it certainly helped, much to the dismay of German-Americans. Knowing English gave the Irish an advantage. The political record was, and is, murky, but who didn’t join in Skeffington’s last hurrah? When John Kennedy ran for president, nuns in their habits were photographed jumping like school girls as he passed. Alas, his presidency was the beginning of the era of Kennedy Catholics.

My mother was fond of telling her children that they were “all Irish,” no tainted blood in our veins, and when I married Constance Terrill Kunert it was not regarded as a mixed marriage.

And here we are at St. Patrick’s Day, when everyone is Irish, and ready to shed a tear when "Danny Boy" (also known as the London derrière) is sung. Kiss me, I’m Irish. Erin go bragh.

Ralph McInerny is a writer of philosophy, fiction, and cultural criticism, who has taught for many years at Notre Dame.

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Comments (9)Add Comment
written by Brad Miner, March 17, 2009
What a wonderful essay! There's much to love, but most especially "London derrière." Gosh, that cracks me up.
Not Irishman at all
written by Tom Granados, March 17, 2009
St. Patrick was a slave of english descent.
written by today is her feast day. Indeed, March 17, 2009
I have no doubt that the Irish monks saved Western civilization. Irish rhetoric and literature are well know. Having been in both Italy and Spain, I can say that culinary skills are not an Irish asset. Being born of an Irish mother and married to an uncontaminated Irish girl, I can say that the Irish produce the prettiest girls in the world. My wife is Patricia
written by Daniel Latinus, March 17, 2009
"St. Patrick was a slave of english descent." - Tom Granados

Not quite... Patrick was a Romano-Briton, a person possessing some Roman and Celtic ancestry. At the time St. Patrick was a slave in Ireland, the Anglo-Saxons (i.e., the English) were plodding around in the forests of Germany, and didn't invade Britannia for another century or two.
written by debby, March 17, 2009
Funny. Always thought St. Patrick was ROMAN, his father a Roman prelate ruling over the barbaric Brits! So our family always has Pasta w/ Pesto-just so the italian pasta is irish green...
I'm a scottish/english genetic mess but my red hair, green eyes, fair skin & freckles led many an Irish drunk to sing to me When Irish Eyes Are Smiling on the subways of NYC & Boston. I was 32, pregnant & shocked to discover no Irish pumps thru my veins but the Irish Faith pumps thru my heart just the same!
written by Kirk Kramer, March 18, 2009
We have seen some good comments on the site since this feature was introduced last year but yours, Debby, take the prize for the best so far. Thank you for writing - may the prayers of St Patrick keep us all faithful to "the Irish Faith."
written by Jud Wyant, March 18, 2009
Permit me to add P. J. O'Rourke to your list of American Irish writers.
written by Harriette, March 18, 2009
Professor McInerny don't forget our Irish Patriots! My Mother was raised with the admonition "Remember, you are of the line of Owen Roe O'Neill". The worst word in the English language to my Grandmother was:CROMWELL.
Please add Frank O'Connor to the Irish writers.His short story "First Confession" is a gem. Truly, Erin go braugh!
written by having heard it performed inst, March 22, 2009
Dear Ralph
I got a chuckle from the 'London derriere' remark (was about to say 'crack,' or, in Irish, 'craic.') 'Londonderry Air,' I believe, is the name of the tune.

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