Thursday, March 15, 2012

A salute to the Irish: love, friendship, loyalty

Posted Mar 15, 2012 By Mark Bergin

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 Even Ireland's national airline, Aer Lingus (which means
Mark Bergin, Frontenac EMC
Even Ireland's national airline, Aer Lingus (which means "air fleet" in English) has a sense of humor, and can tell a good story. They used an image of a young Shane MacGowan in an advertising campaign.
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 A Claddagh ring from Ireland. Hands hold the crowned heart:
Mark Bergin, Frontenac EMC
A Claddagh ring from Ireland. Hands hold the crowned heart: "Let love and friendship reign."
EMC Lifestyle - We Irish are an odd lot. I think it would befit the Irish, so close to the earth and sea, to honor Brigid on Feb. 1 or Colum (Columcille) on June 9. Both were native born and in tune with the gentle ways of the land.

Instead, each year we celebrate our Irishness by honoring a man who wasn't Irish, was never canonized as a saint, and who we claim drove snakes out of a country where no snakes existed. If there ever were snakes in Ireland, the cold-blooded creatures would have died 15,000 years ago during the last Ice Age, long before Patrick's life in the 5th century. But not even python popsicle fossils have been found in Ireland.

I realize it's all about symbolism, and the snake in some cultures is a representation of evil. So they say Patrick drove evil out of Ireland, yada, yada. Despite an endless number of tales about Patrick, very little is known about him.

In some Celtic regions, the serpent represents power and wisdom, andespecially a snake coiled around itselfhealing. What "driving the snakes out of Ireland" reflects is that we Irish are natural storytellers. The fact that tourists pay money to kiss a stone in Blarney is evidence of our skill at weaving a fine tale. P.T. Barnum would be proud of us.

To celebrate my culture on March 17, I'll be wearing my Claddagh ring and listening to the Mahones and Shane MacGowan/The Pogues. Shane MacGowan is one of the most beloved of Ireland's modern poets/musicians, and nothing could be more Irish than the wearing of the beloved Claddagh ring.

You've probably seen the Claddagh image on a ring or necklace. The Claddagh symbol dates back more than 300 years.

The ring comprises two hands holding a heart, which wears a crown. Friendship, love and loyalty are captured in the image. The Fenians designed the rings without the crown. That just seems scary. It would be like having love and friendship, with no loyalty. I guess political correctness isn't confined to our current world.

Claddagh, which means stony shore in Irish Gaelic, was a small fishing village on Galway Bay, outside the eponymous town. The ancient village maintained its sovereign settlement until Martin Oliver, their last king, died in 1972. The king, periodically elected, held the distinguished privilege of using a white sail on his hooker (a type of fishing boat, not a career choice). Today, the area is part of Galway.

The ring can be traced to the 17th century. Algerians captured Galway's Richard Joyce while he sailed to the West Indies. Joyce became a slave to a Moorish goldsmith, from whom he learned the goldsmith trade. When released from slavery, Joyce returned to Galway and opened a goldsmith shop. He created a symbol (what we now know as the Claddagh ring) of his undying love for his homeland and friends. Today, we wear it to honor our Irish heritage. It's also become a symbol of friendship and romantic commitment for the non-Irish. I've had many an interesting conversation with strangers after they've noticed my ring or I've noticed them wearing the Claddagh. "You're Irish?" is often received with a big smile. If the answer is "Tá," then I know I'm dealing with someone who speaks the language.

You can still find one of the earliest Claddagh shops in Galway. Thomas Dillon's, established in 1750, is also home to the Claddagh Museum. John Wayne, Bing Crosby, Walt Disney and John Fitzgerald Kennedy each wore a ring from Dillon's. Queen Victoria wore one, as did King Edward VII and Winston Churchill.

The ring serves as an indicator of one's relationship status. There are many variations, but there are two main fashions. To wear the ring with the heart facing the wearer means the person is committed/married. If the heart faces out, the person is unattachedthe heart is still searching. However, there are some complicated variations on this theme. For example, some jewelers tell you that if the ring is worn on the right hand facing out, the person is footloose and fancy free. If it's facing in, the person is not available for romance. If worn facing out on the left hand, the person is engaged. If facing in, the person is married. Not sure what you're supposed to do if you're divorced...or a bigamist.

As for our March 17 festivities, it's time to start celebrating modern Irish culture. Perhaps we've been commemorating Patrick's death (March 17) because he didn't drive snakes from Ireland, he wasn't a canonized saint, and he wasn't Irish.

More fitting would be a day in honor of Shane MacGowan. If you're not familiar with him, you've likely heard his songs. Every Christmas, his Fairy Tale of New York rules the airwaves in Ireland and other Celtic countries. During his concerts, songs like Haunted, A Rainy Night in Soho, Thousands are Sailing, and The Band Played Waltzing Matilda bring many the staunch Irish man and woman to tears.

Here's my argument for March 17 being (Saint?) Shane MacGowan Day. If you attend a Shane MacGowan live performance, you'll notice a certain sense of Irish sacredness at the event. Shane MacGowan is a living Irish punk legend. The wounded healer.

Shane MacGowan is Irish (okay, born in England of Irish parents who soon moved back to Ireland). Shane-o, as he is sometimes known, was immersed in Irish culture, especially music, from a young age. He's a brilliant poet/songwriter. And we love our poets and musicians. From Imelda May or Rory Gallagher to Van Morrison and Sinead O'Connor, we wear our hearts on our sleeves.

In the tradition of the likes of Irish poet, novelist, and playwright Brendan Behan, MacGowan is a tragic yet classic Irish hero. By the way, Behan once said that there are no snakes in Ireland because they all left and went to New York to become judges.

Next, supporting my notion of renaming March 17, to become a saint the individual must first be shown to have performed miracles. Bingo, we've nailed that one. The fact that Shane-o is still alive is a miracle.

A recent video can only help my argument. If you go to Youtube and search "Three priests and a Pogue" you'll find three Irish priests and Shane, the hellraiser, singing Little Drummer Boy.

Finally, are you ready for the clincher? Shane was born on December 25. Case closed.

Happy Saint Shane's Day.

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