Some Favorite Things about Ireland

Happy St. Patrick’s Day! Here are some of my favorite things from the Emerald Isle –

St. Patrick. I have often written about the famous missionary himself, so I won’t go into that story again, but suffice it to say, he is someone worth remembering. He was probably born in England in the late 300s, then kidnapped by pirates as a teenager and taken to Ireland as a slave. He later escaped, went back to his homeland and became a priest – then had a vision of an Irishman begging him to come back to that island and bring them the gospel. In one generation, Ireland was transformed from a coarse, pagan land, into a Christian seat of education and learning. If you want to know more, I highly recommend How the Irish Saved Civilization by Thomas Cahill.

The hymn, “Be Thou My Vision.” During Patrick’s life, on Easter Sunday around the year 433, a Druid king ordered celebration of a pagan holiday instead of the Christian holy day and declared it illegal for anyone to light a fire for any other purpose. Patrick, in defiance of the king and at the risk of his own life, climbed the highest hill and ignited a huge bonfire, to celebrate Jesus as “the Light of the World,” and God’s light shining in dark places. Years later, an unknown composer wrote a beautiful, haunting melody in memory of the event and named it for the place where it happened – Slane Hill.

Legend says that an Irish poet from the sixth century, St. Dallán Forgaill, wrote a lyric that borrowed phrases from another poem often attributed to Patrick known as “The Breastplate.” Forgaill’s poem was forgotten until 1905, when a 25-year-old university student, Mary Byrne, discovered it and translated it into English for the first time. Then in 1912, an Irish woman named Eleanor Hull set the words to music, using the old melody “Slane,” which by then had become a familiar Irish folk tune. It was first published in 1919 and has been appreciated by worshippers ever since – from the opening lyric, “Be Thou my vision, O Lord of my heart,” to its references to God as “High King of Heaven.”

Celtic music. Speaking of that hymn, one of the things I love about Ireland is traditional folk music. The acoustic sound is one of the foundations of a lot of old-school country music, Bluegrass, and what is today often called “Americana” music. The style uses a fiddle, an Irish “tin whistle,” flute, mandolin, banjo, Uilleann pipes, and often, an accordion or concertina. The guitar and Irish harp are also often used – and since much of it is made to accompany traditional folk dances, a frame drum, a bodhran, is also included. The tunes are often simple melodies with beautiful harmonies, and can range in mood from rollicking, toe-tapping, fun times, to sad and mournful – but always straight to the heart. And by the way – it’s pronounced “KEL-tic,” with a hard “K” sound. The SELL-tics are a basketball team in Boston.

Guinness Beer. Okay, I’m not a big fan of beer, and those of you who don’t drink alcohol at all are welcome to skip this part, but: Guinness Stout has been a famous part of Ireland since 1759, when Arthur Guinness signed a 9,000-year lease on the St. James Gate property in Dublin. Mr. Guinness was a good and generous man who took excellent care of his employees, establishing schools and medical clinics for his workers, providing housing at a reasonable cost, and many other benefits – even organizing Sunday trips to the country by train so his workers could have some time out of the city. Beyond that, back in the day, Dublin’s drinking water was often polluted, causing all kinds of disease, so drinking Guinness was considered a healthier option. Its alcohol level is obviously MUCH lower than Irish whiskey, so it actually reduced drunkenness. I especially enjoy a pint during cold weather, with its nutty, yeasty flavor – the taste always reminds me of the smell of fresh-baked bread. And I love to cook with it too, especially using it as an ingredient in beef stew and roast beef.

The Quiet Man. Okay, this is technically an Irish American movie, but it was filmed in Ireland and is a treat to watch. It’s also my very favorite John Wayne film, co-starring Irish actress Maureen O’Hara and Barry Fitzgerald. It was a passion project for director John Ford, who was himself Irish American, and who worked for over ten years to bring it to the screen. I love it! And the proprieties at all times, if you please…

So, wear your green and celebrate – on March 17, we can all be Irish. Sláinte andErin go Braugh!