March 16, 2007

Cornucopia / Cynthia Dewes

Shamrocks and the authentic Irish experience

Cynthia DewesThe shamrock is a cherished Irish symbol and part of every St. Patrick’s Day celebration.

According to a story I once read in The Indianapolis Star, the shamrock legend began when “St. Patrick spread Christianity through Ireland in the fifth century” and “seized upon the three leaves of a clover to illustrate the concept of Trinity—God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit—all springing from the same source.”

However, “Historians say the first written references to ‘shamrocks’ as part of St. Patrick’s Day celebrations don’t appear until the early 18th century.” At that time, the custom of wearing shamrocks on St. Patrick’s Day was noted in the diary of a Protestant minister traveling in Ireland.

The newspaper story said the word “shamrock” was actually “an English transliteration from the original Gaelic name for young clover.” Botanist Charles Nelson is quoted as saying, “There are two principal myths about shamrocks: that it’s unique to Ireland, and that it never flowers.” Both myths, he concluded, are simply false.

The headline of the newspaper article read, “Tale of shamrock’s origins is blarney.”

Well, the shamrock story may be blarney, but the Irish experience is not. The history of Irish immigrants in this country is one of the most interesting, as my Irish friend, Mary, loves to explain to her grandchildren.

Mary is the daughter of Irish immigrants who came to New York early in the 20th century. Like many others from many nations, they were seeking freedom from poverty and class distinction, and a better life for their children.

Mary writes, “It was a time when New York, even though it was considered to be one of the largest cities in the world, was almost full of immigrants and first generation born in the country. Irish, German, Italian, French, English, Spanish, Catholics, Jews and Protestants inhabited most of Manhattan Island.

“The city was known as the melting pot of the world. Things were hard for the wage earner. Money was in short supply, but it was a time when people helped each other and everyone seemed happy. They had a feeling of hope in their new country and in the future.”

Mary’s stories are humorous and endearing. She tells of her Dad, “a New York policeman on the boats in the harbor. He used to take us for rides on the police boat if he was close to where we lived. In those days, the big ships came in from Europe with all the people coming to America and many people going back home to Europe for visits with their families.”

Police and firemen were assigned telephones before most people could afford them, Mary said. Every Sunday, her Mom would allow herself to make one call on the “police” phone to her sister, who lived in an upstairs flat across town. The sister’s downstairs neighbor would answer his phone, the only one in the building, and pound on the ceiling with a broom for the sister to come down and answer.

Mary said her mom would make big pots of soup or stew to share with families who were out of work. She said her neighbors were not only Irish, but also Italian, German and even Native American. She enjoyed a rich existence in the “melting pot” where people valued hard work, honesty and education.

So, blarney or not, let’s honor the shamrock and the Irish heritage that it represents in our American culture. St. Patrick must be proud.

(Cynthia Dewes, a member of St. Paul the Apostle Parish in Greencastle, is a regular columnist for The Criterion.) †

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