Why we love all things Irish this week

Green or not, we're all vulnerable as St. Patrick's Day nears

March 11, 2013|Dan Rodricks

This is the time of year when I feel a bit tweedy, a bit green in the wool, a bit Irish, even though the Rodricks clan from which I descend was Portuguese (Rodrigues) and not Irish (Roderick).

From years of experience, I know something about the wide interest in things Irish — this tendency the non-Irish have to identify with the freckled people.

It's a seasonal condition.

St. Patrick's Day, falling as it does on the cusp of spring, catches even the most miserable among us in a hopeful and ready mood. The Irish might eat melancholy for breakfast, but the road rises to meet them and it leads to green valleys. Those heavenly metaphors, corny by any other standard, have a certain magic when pitched with a brogue.

Admit it — you're a sucker for it. You're ready for it.

March is the breakout month. We shrug off winter, stretch our arms, and maybe let the topcoat fall to the floor. The tweed jacket or wool sweater will do.

Here comes spring: Crocuses crack through the ground, yellow confetti sprouts on the strands of forsythia, the Orioles are in training, and the St. Patrick's Day parade comes down Pratt Street.

Another thing pushes the non-Irish in the Irish direction. St. Patrick's Day usually times nicely with the Lenten season, so you have more people of the Christian faith returning to church, and they sit there and think about things, conflicted with the mixture of melancholy and hope that the Portuguese called saudades, and a good deal of guilt, too.

Catholics are particularly vulnerable. You might be sitting there, a conflicted or lapsed Catholic worried about eternity, and the sun hits the stained glass. Tongues of red and blue and yellow land on the columns and the pews, and streams of sunlight fall across the sanctuary and the vestments of a white-haired priest who reminds you of Father Sullivan or Monsignor Scully.

Something about the past whispers to you.

You hear a bagpipe at a funeral, or in the parade passing by, and you're an emotional goner. You're a mess.

So there's my theory on the Irish thing — the promise of green again, and the calendar delivering us to the quiet pews in church and to thoughts of the dearly departed, the dead of Joycean reveries.

Admit it. You're a sucker for it: "His soul had approached the region where dwell the vast hosts of the dead. He was conscious of, but could not apprehend, their wayward and flickering existence ... "

That's James Joyce describing Gabriel's thoughts in "The Dead," as his eyes start to fill with tears when he realizes his sleeping wife had once loved another, and with such passion that Gabriel never knew. "He had never felt like that himself towards a woman but he knew that such a feeling must be love ... "

I'd go on, but you might get all weepy on me.

Pull out Joyce's "Dubliners," if you want the full dose of elegant melancholy.

March always reminds me of my first St. Patrick's Day in Baltimore, 1976.

Assigned to report on a holiday party, I encountered two things for the first time — Irish-Americans born in Baltimore and the Bawlmer accent. "Emerald Owl Club," is what they said they belonged to, turning "Isle" into "Owl" as only a Bawlmer-speaking native could. If not for a sharp-eyed editor, "Emerald Owl Club" would have found its way into print for the first time in history.

About 20 years ago, I wrote about old St. Peter's Cemetery in West Baltimore, and how it had been overwhelmed with weeds. You never saw such a response as the Irish-Americans accused of disrespecting their departed ancestors from what had been the city's largest parish for immigrants from Ireland. The descendants organized quickly, grabbed bush axes and weed trimmers, and cleaned up the graveyard.

All these years later, the Irish clubs around here keep up their traditions, starting with the parade.

A tweet went out the other day wondering why Baltimore's St. Patrick Day's parade was held on Sunday, March 10, when St. Patrick's Day falls nicely on a Sunday this year. Why not just have the parade on the saint's day itself?

A good question, I thought, but then decided that the annual practice of always holding the parade on the Sunday before St. Patrick's Day is entirely appropriate. It establishes a "St. Patrick's Week," so to speak, and it gets us in touch with our Irish vulnerability.

It's good for the pubs, and the Celtic musicians who look to mid-March as their high season. It's good for anyone who has been caught up in the dreary news and the painfulness of daily events, the stale matter-of-fact of life.

And so here we are, shedding the winter coat, feeling a little green, ready and hopeful, and eager to open the door and step into spring. May the road rise to meet us ...


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