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by William H. Benson

March 17, 2011

     Jed Clampett of The Beverly Hillbillies once explained to his nephew Jethro how he saw through the intentions of a designing and matrimonial-minded woman. “Well, Jethro,” he said. “Us old foxes are mighty trap-shy, ‘specially when the bait comes chasing us.”

     The fictional Uncle Jed might have been of Irish heritage, for his quote is that of an Irish proverb: “An old fox is shy of a trap.” In the Gaelic language it had been slightly different: “Cha gheabhthar sean ean le caith,” which meant “An old bird is not caught with chaff.”

     Yes, the Irish love their proverbs: “’More beard than brains,’ as the fox said of the goat.” “Little by little the bird builds her nest.” “If you don’t sow in the spring, you will not reap in the autumn.” “You should never stop the plough to kill a mouse.” “The best throw of a dice is to throw it away.”

     Yes, it is St. Patrick’s Day, the day when thoughts turn to the Irish, to the four and a half million people who live on the green island, “the other island,” those who speak softly, show the utmost in gentle courtesy to strangers, and live a modest and leisurely life, so unlike their Irish-American cousins.

     The Irish descended from the Celts, the early inhabitants of the island, and today the Irish demonstrate that Celtic influence. Irish ancestry means dark hair, perhaps even red, with lightly-colored eyes, often blue or green, for Ireland’s cloudy skies may have lessened their eye pigmentation.

     Whatever their looks, wherever the Irish go, they display a “gift of words, of imaginative and persuasive oratory, and colorful language.” An English visitor asked for the time, and the Irishman replied that, “It was in the heel of the evening, about the time when the dew was thinking of falling.”

     Over the centuries the Irish assembled a treasure-house of mythological lore, of fairy-tales, and stories of “heroes, fairies, giants, demons, witches, hags, spirits, and of course leprechauns, those beloved impish manikins.” People without much in terms of wealth will naturally “cherish things of the spirit that they can pass on by a rich oral tradition.”     

     Still, the Irish suffer along with their own personal problems. One author said that Ireland groans under “the world’s highest rate of chronic psychosis.” That blanket statement is in need of statistics and documentation, but then another author went even further and said that their “depression is the main cause of an excessive consumption of alcohol, estimated to account for 10 per cent of all personal spending in the Republic.” Frankie McCourt’s father loved his “pint,” and plenty beyond that.

     The Irish seem hidebound to the uglier facets of their past. There was the Great Potato Famine of the mid-nineteenth century when nearly a million people perished of starvation and disease and another million packed it in and fled to America. They will never forget that trauma.

     Then, the hated English mistreated the Irish “for eight hundred long years!”, something Frankie McCourt’s father frequently shouted when caught up in a rage. The English laid claim to the island, ruled the Irish with an iron fist for centuries, bought up all the fertile land, and drove the Irish into lives of poverty as peasants and tenant shepherds, tied to the land, to the sheep, and to the peat bog. They well knew the meaning of the metaphor, “Colder than a landlord’s heart.”

     Something happened to the Irish though, once they crossed the Atlantic. Freed and unbound from the land and living in America, they sought out jobs in the cities of Boston, New York City, Philadelphia, and Baltimore, and so they became an urban people, “aggressive, competitive, and swaggering, sentimental, and tough.” “It is as if the shift from a static and deeply religious society to a thriving and largely secular society liberated hidden energies within the Irish mind.”

     A good example is the Kennedy family. Patrick Kennedy left Wexford County, Ireland in 1848, in the aftermath of the Great Potato Famine and settled in Boston. His grandson, Joseph P. Kennedy married Rose, the daughter of John F. “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald, the longtime mayor of Boston. Three of their sons, at Joseph’s prodding, entered into politics, and one of them, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, won the Senate and then the White House and the Oval Office. 

     Some people might think that to be Irish means a slight inclination to listen to Joe Feeney—a former Grand Island, Nebraska resident and Lawrence Welk’s Irish tenor—sing one more time either “My Wild Irish Rose,” or “Oh, Danny Boy.” But the Irish live among us. In fact, they are us, and their surnames tell as much: Blake, Barry, Boyle, O’Brien, Butler, Carey, Carroll, MacCarthy, O’Casey, O’Connell, Connor, Costello, Conroy, Cahill, Daly, Dempsey, Devlin, Dillon, Dolan, Donnelly, Flaherty, Flynn, O’Hara, Lynch, Leary, Kennedy, O’Malley, Murphy, Murray, O’Neill, Quinn, Reagan, and O’Sullivan.

     Today, the Irish Republic is struggling with a massive debt hangover. “Wages are falling, unemployment has tripled to 13 percent, and young people are again emigrating in droves.” These are tough economic times for the Irish. “A bit of bad luck,” you might say? Not to them. “’Tis only the luck of the Irish.”