Tuesday, March 17, 2009

St. Patrick's Day

I noticed that our friend the Night Writer decided to recycle some earlier work for St. Patrick's Day, so I decided to steal the idea and recycle an older post, too. You should read Night Writer's post, which includes a highly amusing tale of mischief surrounding the extensive St. Patrick's Day revels at that well known bastion of Irishness, the University of Missouri-Rolla. No, really.

Night Writer went back three years for his post, and I'm going back 3 years as well. Back in 2006 this feature was in its infancy and I had a readership that on good days approached the high single digits, so I'd be willing to wager that nearly everyone who reads this blog now was otherwise engaged in those days.

Despite my highly Germanic surname, I am one-quarter Irish and therefore have the right to celebrate my ancestors from Counties Cork, Sligo and Wexford. In addition, my favorite dead poet is Yeats (my favorite living poet is this guy, of course), so I mused thus:

We return to William Butler Yeats, this time to his recounting of the events of Easter Rising of 1916:

I HAVE met them at close of day
Coming with vivid faces
From counter or desk among grey
Eighteenth-century houses.
I have passed with a nod of the head
Or polite meaningless words,
Or have lingered awhile and said
Polite meaningless words,
And thought before I had done
Of a mocking tale or a gibe
To please a companion
Around the fire at the club,
Being certain that they and I
But lived where motley is worn:
All changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

That woman's days were spent
In ignorant good-will,
Her nights in argument
Until her voice grew shrill.
What voice more sweet than hers
When, young and beautiful,
She rode to harriers?
This man had kept a school
And rode our winged horse;
This other his helper and friend
Was coming into his force;
He might have won fame in the end,
So sensitive his nature seemed,
So daring and sweet his thought.
This other man I had dreamed
A drunken, vainglorious lout.
He had done most bitter wrong
To some who are near my heart,
Yet I number him in the song;
He, too, has resigned his part
In the casual comedy;
He, too, has been changed in his turn,
Transformed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

Hearts with one purpose alone
Through summer and winter seem
Enchanted to a stone
To trouble the living stream.
The horse that comes from the road.
The rider, the birds that range
From cloud to tumbling cloud,
Minute by minute they change;
A shadow of cloud on the stream
Changes minute by minute;
A horse-hoof slides on the brim,
And a horse plashes within it;
The long-legged moor-hens dive,
And hens to moor-cocks call;
Minute by minute they live:
The stone's in the midst of all.

Too long a sacrifice
Can make a stone of the heart.
O when may it suffice?
That is Heaven's part, our part
To murmur name upon name,
As a mother names her child
When sleep at last has come
On limbs that had run wild.
What is it but nightfall?
No, no, not night but death;
Was it needless death after all?
For England may keep faith
For all that is done and said.
We know their dream; enough
To know they dreamed and are dead;
And what if excess of love
Bewildered them till they died?
I write it out in a verse -MacDonagh and MacBride
And Connolly and Pearse
Now and in time to be,
Wherever green is worn,
Are changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

Yeats was celebrating the heroism of those Irish patriots who fought and died in the Easter Rising of 1916. He wrote this poem much later and it has the elegiac tone of man with many regrets. He even begrudgingly celebrates his enemy MacBride, the "drunken vainglorious lout" who had won the affections of the great love of Yeats' life, Maud Gonne.

I've known a lot of drunken vainglorious louts over the course my life, but my generation didn't face subjugation and the deathless hope that led these men to fight against a force they had no chance to defeat. The primary reason for this is simple enough: my Irish forebears had left long before and had come to America.

Much of the romanticism attached to Ireland stems from the almost endless supply of cruelty and misfortune the Irish have suffered, both at the hands of oppressors and through the disastrous choices that so many Irish have made in response to their circumstances. Like many Americans, my ancestors, bearing the surnames of Donovan and Murphy (among others), emerged from the coffin ships and found nurture in this new land, where their descendants have found better opportunities and better lives. They chose not to stand like MacDonagh and MacBride, Connolly and Pearse, but instead fled the darkness of the Emerald Isle. The irony is that they had to leave places like Wexford, Sligo, and Cork in order to experience the Luck of the Irish, understanding that Branch Rickey was right -- luck is the residue of design. On this St. Patrick's Day, I remain grateful for their sacrifices and the risks they took during their passage, so that I, their great-great-grandson, could enjoy a better life.

Three years on, that still seems right to me. Happy St. Patrick's Day.


Night Writer said...

Thanks for the link.

Given your history, I think you'll want to go to Rhapsody and listen to this classic from Frances Black: The Sky Road


Mark Heuring said...

Thanks for the link to that song, NW. It rings true.