Llewellyn King: Ireland's pain was America's gain



There will be the “wearing of the green” all over the world come St. Patrick’s Day on March 17. Nowhere more so than in Boston, Chicago and New York. That’s right, not even in Ireland; although they’ve gotten the hang of their own saint’s festival in recent years.

For centuries, until the Americans showed their cousins in Ireland how to party on St. Patrick’s Day, it was a somber, religious feast day.

St. Patrick was what was known as a “Romano-British” missionary, who went to Ireland in the 5th century, probably in the latter half of the century. We know this from fragments of his own writing. He settled around Armagh, in the north of Ireland, and became the first bishop of Armagh, Primate of Ireland. He described the Irish as “heathen men.”

Myth tells of St. Patrick driving the snakes out of Ireland. But myth has many faces in Ireland, and is part of the charm of the Irish – a charm that has affected the whole world, and stirs people far removed from that small and at times very troubled island to wear something green, drink and pay homage.

Not the least of the celebrations this year, as in recent years, will be in London, where so many of the agonies of Ireland had their genesis. The English — and I was born into the British Empire — have treated Ireland savagely down through the centuries. Oliver Cromwell, the English reformer, wrote of his incursion into Ireland, “God made them as stubble to our swords.” At the battle of Drogheda in 1641, about which Cromwell was writing, the English killed some 3,500 Irish patriots. Hard work with broad swords.

William of Orange, the Dutch Protestant ruler who became William III of England, Scotland and Ireland, invaded Ireland on July 1, 1690 to fight massed Catholic forces, led by James II, the deposed Catholic king of England. The two armies faced each other across the River Boyne, just to the north of Dublin. William won the battle, but his victory left a divide between Irish Protestants and Catholics which exists in modified form to this day.

The “wearing of the green” most likely dates from the uprising of 1798, when the Irish tried to throw off the English yoke with French help, and were soundly defeated by Gen. Charles Cornwallis, who was seething from his defeat in the American Revolution. The Irish, who were rounded up and hanged in groups of 20 a day by some of the English general’s officers, showed their defiance by wearing something green — often a shamrock in their hats. The English considered that an offense: sedition.

Cornwallis also oversaw the formal incorporation of Ireland into Britain. But to his credit, he fought with George III (remember him?) over Catholic emancipation, and for a while resigned his commission.

More horror from England was on the way — and persisted essentially until Irish independence in 1922. During the potato famine (1845-49), England refused to let relief ships with grain land in the belief that the famine was part of a natural order, as laid out by the philosopher Thomas Robert Malthus. One million people died as potatoes were their only sustenance.

In this case Ireland’s pain was America’s gain. Hundreds of thousands of Irish fled starvation for a new life in America. This diaspora changed Ireland and America, forever. It is how 50 million Americans claim Irish ancestry.

The Irish in America began to celebrate the national saint of their motherland in their new land — and so was born the St. Patrick’s Day joyous celebration.

To my mind, the final Irish reprisal against England is not the world recognition but that Irish writers, writing in English, not the Irish language, have had such an incalculable impact on English literature. To take a few names at random Beckett, Behan, Goldsmith, Joyce, Shaw, Synge, Swift, Wilde and Yeats.

In Ireland, there is an endless flow of wonderful language. The Irish will never say “yes” or “no” when they can give you a sentence with a flourish, which makes the mundane poetic.

Once in Dingle, my wife asked a waiter: “Is the fish fresh?”

He answered, “If it were any fresher, it would be swimming, and you wouldn’t want that would you?”

Also in Dingle, when I asked an elderly man whether the pub he was sitting outside of was open, he replied, “He would hardly be open now.”

The English occupied their land, but the Irish occupied their language and added to it with their genius. Erin go bragh!

Llewellyn King is a long-time publisher, columnist and international business consultant. This first ran on InsideSources.

Chris Powell: One last reason to be in journalism

These remarks were made Oct. 9 at a meeting celebrating the Yankee Institute for Public Policy's 30th anniversary, held at the Hartford Club. HARTFORD

Thank you for your Truth Teller Award. Now if I can get the State Employee Bargaining Agent Coalition's Lie Teller Award I'll have a matched set.

Somebody told me that this award means I'm the best newspaper columnist in Connecticut. Of course I'm grateful for that thought -- indeed, these days anyone should be grateful just to be read. But such praise reminds me of what Bill Buckley said when Lillian Hellman was described as "the greatest living American female playwright." Buckley called it a little like marveling at the tallest building in Wichita, Kansas.

Awards prompt reflection about one's life, and I'm starting to appreciate how Groucho Marx felt when, in 1972, not long before he died, Roger Ebert asked him what he thought of his spectacular career on stage, in movies, and on radio and television.

Groucho replied: "I'd trade it all for an erection."

Back then such an observation would have been considered distasteful. Not anymore. If he was still around Groucho could parlay it into still another career in television, courtesy of the pharmaceutical industry and its ad agencies, and hardly anyone would be offended. Indeed, since half the country now is close to what was Groucho's age then, most people today probably would concur with him -- as I do, if for a more political reason.

In college I took a poetry course that introduced me to some fine things, like W.H. Auden's poem "In Memory of William Butler Yeats," as well as to the work of Yeats himself. Yeats had been the literary giant of Ireland, and when he died Auden wrote:

Now Ireland has her madness and her weather still,

For poetry makes nothing happen. ...

So much for poetry, I thought; Yeats and Auden should know. But maybe, I thought, journalism could make something happen, and it didn't even have to rhyme. So I left college early for the newspaper job.

I still think journalism can make something happen, or prevent something from happening, which can be just as good, and that's a reason for sticking with it. But journalism's efficacy is declining fast along with literacy and civic engagement amid the bane of civilization, the corruption of prosperity, so making something happen or preventing something is not so much my reason anymore.

No, I stick with journalism more out of spite. I just couldn't stand for certain people to think that nobody is on to them.

So here in Connecticut you may be stuck with me a little longer, just as Wichita is stuck with the Epic Center, the tallest building not only in that city but in all of Kansas though having only 22 stories. To learn the qualities of agreat journalist, you'll have to listen not to me but to Stanley Walker, who was city editor of the New York Herald-Tribune in the 1930s. Walker explained:

What makes a good newspaper man? The answer is easy. He knows everything. He is not only aware of what goes on in the world today but his brain is a repository of the accumulated wisdom of the ages.

He is not only handsome but he has the physical strength that enables him to perform great feats of energy. He can go for nights on end without sleep. He dresses well and talks with charm. Men admire him; women adore him; tycoons and statesmen are willing to share their secrets with him.

He hates lies and meanness and sham but keeps his temper. He is loyal to his paper and to what he looks upon as his profession; whether it is a profession or merely a craft, he resents attempts to debase it.

When he dies, a lot of people are sorry, and some of them remember him for several days.

Thanks again for your award. I will remember you always for it, and if you remember me through dinner tonight I'll consider it a triumph.

Chris Powell is the managing editor of the Journal Inquirer, in Manchester, Conn.