St. Patrick's Day Renews Spirit of Return
By C. Austin
The tides of March are upon us once again. The vernal equinox will
tilt our world toward spring at 11:50 PM PDT on March 19. The
celebration of St. Patrick's Day, equinox and Easter combine this
month to bring us a hearty reminder of renewal and return.
St. Patrick's Day on March 17 is a festival of all things Irish.
Though named for a man named Patrick who led a Christian mission to
Ireland in about 450 AD, St. Patrick's Day in our time has much to do
with the tenacity of the Irish spirit and the appeal of Irish culture.
In 1845 a highly infectious, fungus-like pathogen called
Phytophthora infestans (commonly known as "Late Blight") changed the
course of Irish history. In the mid-1800's Ireland was a generally
poor country that supported a population of about eight million,
one-third of which was either entirely or significantly dependent on
the cultivation of potatoes as a staple food. By 1901, after the
Famine era, the population had fallen to four million.
The crop failure that occurred during 1845 coincided with a period
of Irish population growth as well as economic stagnation. The potato
failure of 1845 should not have had a lasting effect on Ireland.
However, the lack of effective intervention by Irish landlords,
merchants and most importantly, the British government, transformed
the crop failure of 1845 into a famine known as An Gorta Mor (the
Successive crop failures between 1845 and 1851 and an inability or
unwillingness to provide assistance to the poor and destitute brought
unimaginable pain, disease or death to over two million souls who fled
into Ireland's underworld arms or sailed beyond the ninth wave to find
a new life in countries such as America and Canada. Tragically, many
of those seeking to escape the famine died on disease-ridden vessels
known as "coffin ships."
Ironically, the pathogen that caused the potato famine itself came
from the America's (central Mexico) and traveled across the Atlantic
to Belgium where it began its deadly devastation of European potato
fields in 1843. The ravages of poverty, pestilence and politics
permanently changed the lives of those who call themselves Irish.
Millions of people fled Ireland's broken hearth during and in the
years following the Great Hunger. Carrying their culture and their
connectedness with them, these immigrants took up residence all over
the world. The fortune, political clout and identity forged by these
immigrant populations abroad has served to sustain their ties with
Ireland. Whether or not the descendents of these immigrant families
ever physically returned to Ireland is not of consequence. As Ireland
turns, so turn her people, wherever they live.
Despite the sentimentality of the occasion, it is telling that on
March 17 of each year, "all the world is Irish" - there are no
celebrations of similar magnitude of other immigrant populations.
With no geographic borders the Irish psyche remains connected over
boundless space and time.
March is indeed a time of return - the return of thoughts to the
man Patrick who bravely carried out his Irish mission despite great
hardship. For many, so also returns faith - in a mythological saint
who assailed the creatures and characters of another time to bring
monotheism to Ireland. But to all of those living beyond Ireland, to
the descendents of the Irish Diaspora, our thoughts of admiration,
courage and appreciation return to those who are responsible for the
lives we lead and the character that we can call our own.
Spring is again with us - may the sun shine warmly in your heart
and inspire the creativity of the next new season of our lives.