By Jay Mason
May the blessing of light be with you – light outside and light within.
May sunlight shine upon you ’til it grows like a great peat fire…
So that a stranger may come and warm himself by it.
May a blessed light shine out of your two eyes
Like a candle set in two windows of a house
Bidding the wanderer to come in out of the storm.
An old Irish blessing
It is that time of year again. Every year in March I look forward to St. Patrick’s Day – a feast day usually in the middle of Lent. One side of my mother’s family came to America many generations ago from the Emerald Isle. I have since visited the County of Roscommon in the middle of Ireland from whence they may have come when our country was very young.
I had never thought much about Ireland until I was reminded of my roots shortly after my college days at the University of Kansas. There was a humanities program there in which students read many of the great books of Western civilization beginning with ancient Greece and Rome through the Middle Ages and Renaissance to modern times. Students memorized poetry and learned the stories of the constellations. They learned that there is truth in this world that transcends their opinion and that men and women have been searching for it for centuries.
After I graduated, the humanities program decided to spend a semester in Ireland. In the winter of 1976 the professors and all of their students traveled to southwestern Ireland. The students alternated staying in Galway on the western coast and Inishbofin, a small island about 8 miles off the coast. They read the same texts they would have read in Lawrence, Kansas but in a completely different setting. The people in western Ireland were very friendly to the American students and thought they were half crazy coming to Ireland in the depth of winter. Something would happen that semester that would change every student and professor, and for that matter every student who had been and would be in the program. Several Gallupians were on the island that year.
One of the reasons the professors chose Inishbofin was its remoteness from the modern world. The people of the island were fishermen and sheepherders. They were simple folk who opened their homes and hearts to a bunch of students from Kansas. It was the middle of winter, and the western side of the island looks directly into the North Atlantic. The students were told by the fishermen not to wander that way, especially out to the Stags, which was a rock formation that connected to a smaller island that you could walk to at low tide. Of course, that is exactly what several twenty-year-old boys did when they got the chance. Five made it to the island determined to spend the night, but the cold wind and rain was so fierce, three turned back after the sun went down. One waited on the overlooking cliff for the other two because he was sure they would give up as well. Late that night as the tide was coming in, the remaining two boys decided to cross the rocks to the safety of a warm bed. No one knows for sure, but the fishermen who found them later think one boy slipped on the rocks and fell into the stormy sea, and his friend jumped in to save him. Both were drowned.
The boys were found when the weather cleared the next day. Michael Joe O’Hallaran was the fisherman who spotted a ring on the finger of one of the boys. You can imagine the trauma that resulted both with the students and the islanders. The University agreed to provide counseling and fly all the students home after the tragedy, but a remarkable thing happened. Most of the parents flew to Ireland instead to see their children and attend the funeral, which was held at the Cathedral in Galway. Only one student went home; everyone else stayed and finished their studies. The lives of those students were inexorably joined with the lives of the islanders. Many students including myself have since visited the island and gotten to know the remarkable people who live there.
In 1996 the islanders decided to erect a monument, which was a Celtic cross sculpted by a famous Irish sculptor, and many former students and the families of the two young men, along with one of the professors traveled to Inishbofin for the memorial. I had friends on the island by then, and my wife Kitty and our five children attended the event. I still remember traveling all night and most of the next day to get to the island to discover that we would be staying at an inn (there were only 2) owned and run by one of the matriarchs on the island, Mrs. Murray – my mother’s maiden name. And then when I walked into the pub attached to the inn I saw a man eating dinner at the bar who looked like a Navajo. I thought I was dreaming; I had just traveled five thousand miles from Navajo land to a remote island off the coast of Ireland. Sure enough, he was a Navajo born in Fort Defiance who married an island girl and stayed.
There was a blessing of the cross on the cliff above the Stags, and a memorial at the church where two stained glass windows were donated in memory of the boys. We all ate a wonderful meal at our inn, and later that day one friend and I wandered back to the Stags because we still could not believe that the boys had drowned there. As we made our way onto the rocks, the tide was coming in, and a big wave broke over a rock formation in front of us. We learned quite quickly of the power of the North Atlantic and how the tragedy occurred. We turned back to the inn and spent the evening with islanders in a traditional songfest in which the Americans and the Irish took turns singing a song or reciting poetry. My son Patrick (then 16) had just learned “Ode to an Irish Airman” by W. B. Yeats and brought the house down when he proudly recited the poem. The Americans were running out of songs and poems (The Irish never do), and my youngest Kelly (then 7) began Irish step dancing for the crowd to save the day. My children will never forget that day and night, and most of them have been back to the island on their own journeys.
There are more people of Irish heritage in America than in Ireland. As an example, every year my son Patrick marches at the head of the St. Patrick’s Day parade in New York City with his friend, Michael Byrne who used to live in Gallup, and Gene Byrne, his dad, who has marched in the parade for more than 50 years. They dress up in top hats and tails and lead the parade of approximately 350,000 people. It starts at 10:30 in the morning and ends at 4 in the afternoon. If it occurs on a weekend, 3-4 million people come out to watch the parade. If you or your family trace roots to a county in Ireland, you can walk with that county as the parade makes its way down Park Avenue past St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Central Park and ending at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I have joined Patrick and his group several times, and it is great fun to participate.
The Irish have struggled mightily on this earth. They were persecuted by the English for centuries and still have not restored their homeland completely. However, they have brought great energy and good cheer as immigrants to America. They have succeeded beyond their wildest expectations and continue to contribute to America while not abandoning their Irish culture. So when you hear an Irish jig or reel on St. Patrick’s Day, raise your glass (of Guinness, I hope) and toast the land of a thousand shades of green. Erin go Bragh.
Title refers to the four traditional provinces of Ireland, including Ulster in Northern Ireland, which was taken by the English and remains a part of the English Commonwealth. Tommy Makem coined the phrase in his folk song of the same name.