Benson: The luck of the Irish
Thelma Catherine Patricia Ryan is a very Irish name, and she had the red-hair to go with it. Born March 16, 1912, the day before St. Patrick’s Day, in Ely, Nev., her parents moved to Cerritos, Calif., when she was a child. After high school, she worked her way through the University of Southern California, taught at Whittier High School, and then married the lawyer Richard M. Nixon.
Patricia is the feminine form of Patrick, the name of the English missionary who introduced Christianity and the Catholic Church into Ireland in the late fifth century. The Scots have St. Andrew, the English claim St. George, but the Irish point with swelling pride to St. Patrick as their patron saint. He died on March 17, known as St. Patrick’s Day.
In 1995, the writer Thomas Cahill published his book, “How the Irish Saved Civilization.” In it, he detailed St. Patrick’s missionary work, and then Cahill described the important work that the Irish monks completed when Rome fell in 492 A.D.
Cahill argues that when the Germanic tribes — the Goths, Franks, and Vandals — sacked Rome, set afire the libraries and churches, and destroyed the original texts written by the ancient Greek and Roman writers, the monks of Ireland were busy copying them. So, they preserved Plato and Ovid.
Immediately and ever since, scholars and historians have criticized Cahill’s argument. They counter that Cahill overstated his case, that copies of those texts were preserved elsewhere across Europe, not just in Ireland. Cahill’s historical interpretation may be doubtful, but his book appeared on the New York Times bestseller list for two years.
The popular perception is that Ireland is an island of green, of shamrocks, of four-leaf clovers, of the Blarney stone, of leprechauns and their lucky charms. The truth is that for centuries the Irish suffered immense depravity, unrelieved poverty, and their share of alcoholism and mental illness.
On the first page of Frank McCourt’s book “Angela’s Ashes,” he describes the misery he suffered when growing up in Limerick, Ireland.
He writes, “It was, of course, a miserable childhood. Nothing can compare with the Irish version: the poverty; the shiftless loquacious alcoholic father; the pious defeated mother moaning by the fire; pompous priests; bullying school masters; the English and the terrible things they did to us for eight hundred long years.”
What did the English do to the Irish for 800 long years? James Godkin answers that question in his book, The Land-War in Ireland, published in 1870. Godkin writes, “All the maladies of Ireland have arisen from injuries inflicted by England in the wars which she waged to get possession of the Irish land. Ireland has been irreconcilable because she was robbed of her inheritance.”
Godkin argues that the English stole the arable land, and then converted the Irish into tenant farmers who were forced to pay rent to an absentee English landlord. This injustice galled the Irish who were dependent upon that land for their survival and existence.
Irish proverbs underscore their plight. “Cleaning the house will not pay the rent.” “Rent for the landlord or food for the children.” “Colder than a landlord’s heart.”
The Irish fought back for centuries, but the English dismissed them. They were convinced that the Irish could not save themselves, let alone all of Europe’s civilization, that they were too busy drinking their pint of Guinness, complaining and crying out at the injustices that they suffered. The English failed to see that the Irish wanted and needed their land returned to them.
In 1880, the Land League in County Mayo, in Ireland, requested that the English land agent, Charles Boycott, reduce the rent that year because of poor crops. He ignored their request, and instead delivered eviction notices to the tenants. The Land League responded with a plan to isolate Boycott. The mailman would not deliver his mail to him. The laundry refused to wash his clothes. Restaurants would not serve him. Boycott gave in and moved back to England. The Irish had boycotted him.
Not all was gloom and misery in Ireland though. The sun does shine some days, and the luck is not always bad. Despite their difficulties, the Irish know how to joke and laugh. Edward Lear developed the humorous poem called the limerick, named for Limerick, Ireland.
It has five lines, and the first, second, and fifth rhyme, as does the third and fourth. For example, “There was a young rustic named Mallory, who drew but a very small salary. When he went to the show, his purse made him go, to a seat in the uppermost gallery.” Another example, “There was a young lass named Pat, who was a thin girl not fat. When young she married Dick, who played many a trick, and his enemies called him a rat.”
Of course the limerick is silly, but it is also lighthearted and so very Irish. (By the way, the very Irish-American Pat Nixon died on June 22, 1993, at the age of 81, and her husband died 10 months later on April 22, 1994.)
Celebrate St. Patrick’s Day on Monday, and write a limerick.
Benson is a historian from Sterling, Colo., and writes a bi-weekly column for The Dickinson Press.