The Agony of Saint Patty

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The Irish have made their way across the Atlantic Ocean to American shores since the 1600s.  Today, over thirty-three million Americans proudly identify themselves as being of Irish descent. In fact, it would be a rarity for a native Irish person to set foot on U.S. soil without encountering at least one American interested in relaying information about their own distant relatives from county something or other. Quite a turn around from the experience of the first few native Irish to make the trip, when being from Ireland wasn’t considered such a boast-worthy condition. The Irish however, not generally known for their sensitivity, persisted in coming and now there are enough Americans with some bit of Irish DNA somewhere in their gene pools to warrant a good annual celebration of all things Irish.

Growing up in Ireland my memories of Saint Patrick’s Day involved having a bunch of shamrock pinned to my lapel, being made to go to mass, and then standing around in the cold and rain on the streets of Cork city watching the parade (a fairly uninspiring procession of tractors pulling hastily decorated trailers) go by. The happiest part of the celebration for me was a day off school. It was only after I emigrated to the U.S. in the early 1990s that I discovered the true importance of St. Patrick’s Day.

St. Patrick’s Day has been a celebrated enthusiastically in America since the late eighteenth century. There is something about being far from home that makes people more patriotic than they ever felt when nestled in the bosom of the mother land. While Ireland’s first St. Patrick’s Day parade didn’t occur until the 1930s, the first parade in New York hails back to the late seventeen hundreds, and Savannah’s parade has been on the go since 1824.  Shortly after my departure the Irish Government decided to use St. Patrick’s Day to showcase Irish culture, and it became a big deal in Ireland too.

I arrived in Orlando, just a year before the World Cup of 1994 brought a new wave of Irish to the area. My very first job in Orlando was in an Irish bar downtown, Scruffy Murphy’s. The more seasoned staff tried to prepare me for the bedlam that would accompany my first American St. Patrick’s Day, but there was nothing they could have done or said that would have allowed me to grasp the magnitude of it.  The crush of “Irish”, the wearing of the green, the drinking of the green, the drunkenness.  I just couldn’t wrap my mind around so many people out to celebrate my little country, so far away. It took a while for it to dawn on me that there was very little genuine celebration of Ireland going on in Scruffy’s that day, that it was more about a national excuse to party, but I still felt personally appreciated and validated in my quiet suspicions of superiority.

My Irish experience of St. Patrick’s Day had nothing at all to do with ostentatious parades, green rivers, green beer and all day celebrations, but I embraced the traditions of my new country. I have to admit that I initially balked a little at the green beer situation, preferring a pint of the black stuff, but eventually assimilated it into my growing American consciousness. Drunkenness, green beer, partying – OK, I can ascribe to all that.  But there’s one thing that I have yet been able to embrace, and I know that I am not alone in my abhorrence.  It’s one little word that comes around every March, and has the power to turn the stomachs of Hibernians everywhere – Patty.

Allow me to try to explain. If your name should happen to be Patrick, I’m sure you wouldn’t be too upset about having it casually shortened to Pat or Paddy.  But Patty?  Patty is a girl’s name.  Patty is a burger.  Patty is something you might step on in a field. Patty is not a man’s name, and certainly not the name of the patron saint of Ireland. To help you understand the affront, picture Liam Neeson as St. Patrick.  Now project yourself back in time to Ireland circa the mid 400s.  You are exploring the waters and the wilds and happen to run into the impressive and pious man.  “Hello Patty”, you greet him.  Think about it.  He’s not going to be impressed. I imagine you’d be dispatched as quickly and decisively as the snakes.

Paddy derives from Padraig, which is the Irish for Patrick. It’s one of the two accepted shortenings of the name, the other being Pat. Digging into our less than auspicious beginnings in America, the Irish were derogatorily referred to as Paddies. It was a Paddy Wagon you see, not a Patty Wagon.  The Paddy thing is something we’ve come to accept with a grudging affection.  If it had been Patty, however, I think we’d still be having a problem.

So my dear Americans, I love your country so much that it’s now my country too. I thank you for your embrace of my native land and your love of all things Irish.  I derive great pleasure from people I meet who are anxious to link their heritage to mine.  I will indeed be drinking green beer with you on March 17th, but, I beg you, it’s St. Patrick’s Day, it’s Paddy’s Day, you can even, at a stretch call it St. Pat’s. But please, do us a favor and spare us the agony of Saint Patty.

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Fireside Perspectives

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It had been a very tough few days.  Don’t get me wrong now, we were in Cork, so even though it was the saddest of circumstances we still managed to have some fun.  But overwhelmingly, between the fact that one of my favorite people in the world had made an exit (untimely, even at 82), spouse and child abandonment, and a bunch of passport and school work issues, it was a tough week.

My sister Audrey and I, both over unexpectedly from the States, sat on the couch at my Dad’s house a few evenings ago, completely worn out.  “How are you?”, I asked her.  “Cranky” she replied.  “The dead Rita thing?”, I asked.  “Yup”, she nodded.  “I’m cranky too”, said I, “In fact I’m writing a detailed Facebook post about it this very minute”.  Here’s what I wrote:

Top 10 Reasons Why I’m Cranky:

1. Contacted US Embassy and told them that Dept of State has been useless when it came to helping me solve emergency travel dilemmas, but that the Irish government has been amazing. Fearing spell in Guantanamo.

2. Received warm and helpful phone call from US Embassy within three minutes of hitting send, because, it turns out, (we) Americans are a touch competitive. Problem not made better:

3. Learned that I can’t reenter the States on an Irish passport if I have an American passport and I will need to go to a Thursday appointment in Dublin (3 hours drive from where I currently am) to get an emergency travel document.

4. Heard from the Irish passport office that my Irish passport is ready for collection in Cork (where I am today) on Friday (when I will now be in Dublin).

5. Am concerned about the logistics of wrangling masses of luggage from Cork to Dublin City Center and out to Ballsbridge and then to Ranelagh.

6. I have turned in no graduate degree work this week, and course seems to have vanished.

7. Airlines apparently won’t take your word for it that people have died and need death certificates to change flights without charging astronomical fees, so my poor grieving father was marched into the Registrars office today to get Rita’s death certificate. This was not a fun outing. Rita being dead is beginning to seem like a permanent situation. We’re giving her one more week to pull up.

8. Have eaten too much Tayto and am possibly going to have to now buy two airline seats to get to the States, even if they do deign to allow me back in.

9. Penney’s made me buy clothes I can neither afford nor have any room in my suitcase for.

10. Bank of America sent me a warm and helpful email today to remind me of that point.

Mood clearly not improved.

I hit Post and off my complaints went into cyberspace.  Quite a few friends were indulgent enough to offer words of support  A few commented that I could still make them laugh, even when complaining. However, as I read the replies I realized that I was sitting in front of the fire, in my Dad’s house in Cork, having been given leave from family and work to be present for my lovely Rita’s funeral.  I shut down the cranky post and put this in its place:

Things I am grateful for:

  1. Rita Walsh as part of my whole life minus one week.
  2. A husband and children who didn’t complain once about me skipping the country with just hours notice, plus a husband who never even blinked when I put a ridiculously expensive air fare on the credit card.
  3. A principal and co-workers who said, “Just go. We’ve got it under control”.
  4. An amazing Cork family – people who laugh a lot and make great memories together.
  5. A sister who neither snores nor kicks in the night and who isn’t too bad in the day either.
  6. A father, a brother and brother in law who open their doors and hearts to us without hesitation or notice.
  7. My Irish friends who simply showed up.
  8. Tayto.
  9. Penneys.
  10. Cork people – their warmth, their lack of formality, their sense of irreverence, and their wit.
  11. Having two homes and two countries even if it sometimes complicates the paperwork!

We all know it theoretically; everything is perspective.  That night, given my high levels of “woe is me”, I was proud of a particularly quick and solid turnaround in thinking.  Sure, it was a rough few days, and we were tired and cranky and sad, but sitting by our father’s fire in Waterfall, there was also much to be thankful for.

Leaving Cork

My first piece ever, was published in The Irish Examiner.bus 3

Leaving Cork is something I’d expect to be getting used to at this point.  I’ve been doing it seriously for 21 years now. That first time was the worst.  Right before leaving for the airport my Dad and I took a walk down a country boreen by his house in Waterfall, and I waited for him to ask me not to go.  I would have changed my mind so easily then.  But he didn’t.  Instead he talked about the power of youth and opportunity, and the importance of being brave with your life.  That was all very inspiring of course, but what I really wanted him to say was, “Leave? Don’t be ridiculous.  Come back inside and we’ll have a cup of tea”. He didn’t though, and I sobbed and sighed all the way to Shannon, and then heaved my way, in a snotty, drippy mess through immigration.  How did they even let me on that plane?  It was the early 1990s though, the Irish economy was bad, and US immigration officers were probably well used to the sight of heartbroken Irish youngsters setting out to try to make a better fate for themselves in the new world.

It’s been twenty one years now since I left Cork to start my new life in Florida – I know, you suddenly don’t feel so sorry for me anymore, but leaving Cork has become only marginally easier over the years. As I write, I am sitting on the Aircoach from Cork to Dublin. This time I was home for a funeral.  Only the second funeral I’ve had to rush home for over the years, but a very hard loss. Leaving my father behind, knowing that he is now not only bereft of me (and my sister and brother, who both left Cork in time), but also his main partner in crime, his sister Rita, is just so difficult.  I am at that awkward age now where funerals in my parents generation are becoming increasingly common place, and I can’t help but think about how leaving Cork that very first time has taken so many days away from us already.

Whatever the reason for the visit, the rituals of leaving remain the same.  The day before I mentally check  to see if I have met up with everyone I intended to, and eaten everything I meant to. If not, action plans are put into place. The night before I start to gather the mass that began to flow out of my suitcase, like slow seeping lava, since the day of my arrival.  With every day that passes it has poured out in increasing volume.  For some reason, and without fail, I catch myself singing John Denver’s Leaving on a Jet Plane quietly to myself as I go through this process. Contents of suitcase have at least tripled in size, a fact I seem to never remember to plan for when doing the initial packing.  The expansion is fueled by too many trips to Penney’s and Dunnes (shoes that I absolutely did not need, but were only four euro – you’d have to), tons of Cadbury’s chocolate – Twirls, Crunchies, Flakes, boxes of Barry’s Tea Bags (the one Cork commodity that I have not been able to move on from in the past two decades), Sudocrem and the all important 20 pack of Tayto, destined to be reduced to crumbs within two seconds of being packed, as I inevitably sit on the suitcase in order to get it to close.  Zippers strain, and not just on my luggage. The fear of the weighing scale at the airport is totally trumped by the fear of the one in my bathroom in Orlando.  Not only has the luggage expanded but there has also been a personal expansion; the inevitable result of ten days of Seize the Day style indulgence in Clonakilty sausages and pudding, Tom Durcan spiced beef, crusty bread rolls, brown bread, trips to KC’s in Douglas, and an immodest amount of pints of Murphy’s. That other kind of excess baggage is going to take a more sustained and even less pleasant effort to deal with.

The ritual of packing is a good distraction from the reality of the departure.  Used to be my aunt Rita would come over the night before I left and give moral support as I engaged in the ritual. Not this time though; Rita’s in St. Finbarr’s now.  She was buried with her head where her feet should have gone, and though we all noticed it at the time, in good Cork fashion, no one thought to question it.  So I got the packing done on my own last night.  Dad likes to avoid that part of the proceedings so we can stay in the moment a while longer.  Packing complete we sit by the fire watching TV, as if nothing out of the ordinary is happening in the morning.

I did do better at hiding my tears from Dad as he drove me in to Patrick’s Quay to catch the bus this morning. I held it together, singing Neil Diamond loudly with him on the way into town. Because we were running late there was only time for a quick goodbye on the Quay,  “Thank you. I love you”, I said, grateful for the time crunch because I could not bear even the suggestion that he might have tears in his eyes.  Off he drove alone, and I swung my bags onto the bus.

If my father was a selfish man, I imagine that he might have felt more inclined to ask me to stay this morning than that first time I left him.  He might have suggested that we turn around and go home for a cup of Barry’s more readily.  But he’s not, and now I have a husband and children and a life on the other side of the Atlantic.  It’s a good life, and I am blessed to have it, but despite my 21 years away it becomes increasingly obvious that my spiritual home is the one by the Lee, and it looks as though leaving Cork is never going to get any easier.