By Ray Lenarcic
St. Patrick’s Day means different things to different people. For some, it’s a religious Feast Day commemorating the saint who helped Christianize Ireland. For others, it’s a secular celebration of “Irishness” and Irish culture featuring parades, songs, the wearing of the green, and the consumption of copious amounts of alcohol. For my then seven-year-old grand-daughter, Lindsay, it’s “Denny O’Toole and the Leprechauns (children’s story), that singer guy (Vince Colgan), cupcakes with yummy frosting and green ribbons in my hair.”
For a few others, me included, it’s a reminder of the “terrible beauty.” This oxymoronic term was coined by the Nobel Prize-winning poet William Butler Yeats in his work, “Easter, 1916.” The poem described the uprising in Dublin between April 24 and 29 instigated by a handful of patriots who believed the time had come to end the centuries-old occupation of Ireland by the British. Hopelessly outnumbered and without the support of the people, the rebellion was quickly crushed. But the victor’s desire to satisfy a blood-lust for revenge proved monumentally stupid. They executed 15 leaders, including the poet Padraic Pearse, labor leader James Connolly and Major John McBride, turning the rebels’ defeat into a Pyrrhic victory. Fifteen traitors became fifteen martyrs, igniting the fire of a nationwide movement culminating in the creation of the Irish Free State.
To Yeats, the “terrible beauty” described a dual effect of the Easter Rising. It was “terrible” because of the needless deaths that resulted and beautiful because it set in motion a chain of events leading to the emergence of the Republic of Ireland in 1949. When you think about it, the phrase could be used to describe the history of Ireland and its people. Regarding the terrible, consider these examples: the slaughter of over 3000 Irish Catholics (including hundreds of civilians) by Cromwell’s Parliamentarian forces at Drogheda in 1649; the infamous 18th-century Penal Laws which, among other things, forbade Catholic Church services and the ”wearin’ o’ the green,” the horrific Potato Famine of the 1840s which took a million and a half lives and forced another million to emigrate.
Juxtaposed against the shadows was the sunshine: a land of unparalleled beauty highlighted by unique shades of green and breathtaking rose trees; a rich literary and musical heritage; and a friendly, humane people whose unshakable faith enabled them to endure centuries of abuse.
Regardless of its meaning, St. Patrick’s Day is a time when we can co-join piety and fun by participating in religious and secular experiences which enable us to reaffirm our faith and wet our whistles while celebrating a truly amazing culture and people. Erin Go Bragh!