St Patrick was an Irishman

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 (1929-2010)

Ralph McInerny was a writer of philosophy, fiction, and cultural criticism, who taught at Notre Dame from 1955 until his death in 2010. He was among the founding contributors to The Catholic Thing.