As long as I can remember, every St. Patrick’s Day had one constant: green mashed potatoes. My mother created this ritual of praties and food coloring to make her Irishman smile. It worked every time.
Yet it was not just St. Patrick’s Day when my family celebrated being Irish. My father had a collection of John McCormick’s 78 records, so that our early vocabulary (along with “See Spot jump!”) included Mother Machree and Tipperary, Minstrel Boy and Tralee. We learned some Irish history from my father’s recitation of Robert Emmet’s speech from the dock, and by the time each of us reached the age of reason (seven years old) we could declare without faltering Emmet’s opening lines:
“My Lords: ‘What have I to say why sentence of death should not be pronounced on me, according to law? I have nothing to say which can alter your predetermination.’”
One of my favorite books was my father’s marbled, battered copy of Thomas Moore’s poetry. From this book I memorized all the verses of “Last Rose of Summer” and “Oft in the Stilly Night”:
Oft, in the stilly night,
Ere Slumber’s chain has bound me,
Fond Memory brings the light
Of other days around me
By the time I made my trip to Ireland in 1995, my father had been dead for twenty years, but I felt his spirit with me every step of the way.
Man of fine manners and lover of sports, he would have relished watching the glassblowers in Waterford. And when he saw the hedgerows with the verdant fuchsia spilling down, he would have stopped, just like I did, to snap a photo. Never a swimmer, he still would have crammed into the ferry boat—minus a life jacket—to ride the waves over to the Blasket Islands where crumbling structures remain, bitter remnants of suffering and loneliness of those who lived there until the early 1950s. The Cliffs of Moher would have stunned him: sky and water splattered with rock and grass. Perhaps, after a day and night in Doolin, he would have decided that the hospitality, scenery, and music were fine reasons to stay there forever.
But then my father would have missed Sligo, Yeats’ country, and Coole Park’s Autograph Tree where the Irish literary greats— Shaw, Synge, Lady Gregory, O’Casey, and Yeats—have carved their names.
St. Patrick’s Day is for wearing green and wishing friends and enemies a road that rises in greeting. But the day is also for memories of past times that will, no doubt, slip into the present and flow free into the future. Yeats’ poem “To Ireland in the Coming Times” contains another version of a Happy St. Patrick’s Day greeting:
And Time bade all his candles flare
To light a measure here and there;
And may the thoughts of Ireland brood
Upon a measured quietude.