Ah, Saints be praised,
'tis March again - time to trot out whatever green bit of clothing
you can muster, dig out the Clancy Brothers records (or Chieftains,
depending on your generational composition), doctor the family
tree to include a distant Erin relation or two, and celebrate
that glorious day when we are all for a brief moment Irish: St.
| May you
have food and raiment,
A soft pillow for your head,
May you be forty years in Heaven
Before the devil knows you're dead.
While reading the opening bit
of whimsey you may well have pictured how it was likely to be
uttered - in some small, dark pub, the utterer standing relatively
unaided and holding aloft a tall glass of Guinness (draft only,
if you please). It reminds me of the time (not to drop names,
as I once said to President Kennedy, I hate name-droppers) when
the famed Irish painter James McNeil Whistler was patiently waiting
his turn to give a toast. There were, unfortunately, dozens of
others before him, and as goblet after goblet was raised he realized
to his dismay that all of his favorite toasts had been uttered.
When at last his turn arrived, he therefore stood, raising his
glass, and proclaimed, "A toast, my friends, to the next
Of course, stories like this
only serve to perpetuate the unfortunate misconception that the
Irish have a tendency to be over-fond of spirits (the kind you
pour, as opposed to the kind that pour out of cemeteries). This
is, of course, utter nonsense, as everyone knows an Irishman
is never drunk so long as he can hold onto a blade of grass and
not fall off the earth.
Speaking of old acquaintances,
I recall a story concerning the great Irish playwright George
Bernard Shaw which has particular significance for a column that
makes its bed in a Used Bookstore's newsletter . . .
It seems that Shaw was in such
a store once, and came across a book of his own plays that featured
an inscription in his own hand to a friend of his: "With
the compliments of George Bernard Shaw." He immediately
purchased the book, and that same day mailed it off to the friend
with the added inscription: "With renewed compliments,
To return to the drinking issue,
I feel it only fair to admit that we Irish (alright, partly
Irish anyway!) will never eat meat on Friday, but will drink
gin for breakfast. Additionally, we can argue either side of
a question (often at the same time), may or may not believe in
God but are certain of the infallibility of the Pope, are very
good at weekends but not as good in the middle of the week, are
against corruption (unless it's a Democrat), consider anyone
who won't come around to our own point of view to be impossibly
stubborn, and believe in everything we can't see - and nothing
we can. For that matter, it's certain that anyone who doesn't
believe in banshees and leprechauns must be a heathen!
For leprechauns are, of course,
the last survivors of the original Irish - the ancient
race that inhabited the isle before the coming of the Celts in
350 BC. These original inhabitants were short in stature, yet
possessed of a knowledge of arcane arts the rest of the world
has seemingly forgotten about. They are the "wee folk",
the "good people", the "gentry" - it was
not thought wise to name them directly, or indeed to talk too
much about them at all. They were and are capricious, moral after
their own standards, but certainly not above stealing the occasional
baby or putting the odd offending farmer into a deep sleep.
In truth, the leprechaun is
but one branch of this great race - arguably the only one who
actually does a bit of work once in a while (cobbling shoes,
of course). In fact, until recently it was assumed that the very
word came from the Celtic "Leith Bhrogan", which translates
into "One Shoemaker". It is now widely believed, however,
that the word actually evolved from "Luacharma'n" -
the Celtic term for "Pigmy".
"Leprechaun" is actually
a localized term, used in Leinster. In county Cork they were
"Cluricaunes", in Kerry "Luricaunes", in
Ulster "Loghery", and in Tipperary (it's a long way)
they were known as the "Lurigadaunes". Most folkloric
treatises on the subject have attempted to differentiate between
these provincial classifications, most notably between "Cluricaunes"
and "Leprechauns", but it's safe to say that each region
probably used its particular name to signify the Little People
At any rate, Leinster won,
popularity-wise, and we now speak of Leprechauns when referring
to that whole mysterious magical race.
Various theories have emerged
over the centuries as to their origins, the two principal ones
being decidedly motivated by religious concerns. The Celts who
settled Ireland developed their own localized theocracy, weaving
tales of the Tuatha De Dannan, an ancient race of gods who ruled
Ireland until their defeat at the hands of a rival race, when
they fled into hiding, living under the very hills they are reputed
to live to this day. It has been argued that today's Wee Folk
are indeed that very race, having grown smaller and smaller through
the centuries both as a way to remain hidden and as evolutionary
acknowledgement of the current domination of mortals.
With the coming of St. Patrick
and Catholicism, of course, new theories needed to be offered,
and so it began to be purported that the Fair Folk were in fact
some of the Fallen Angels that were originally duped by Lucifer
after his challenge of the Almighty. These particular angels,
having been duped and not all that bad in and of themselves,
landed in Ireland instead of Hell, where they must stay forever
- not good enough for Heaven, nor bad enough for the other place.
A pretty enough story, but
as the Leprechauns and their kin apparently preceded both St.
Patrick and Christianity, we must give more credence to the former
theory, and offer our own humble opinion that the "De Dannan"
tales were actually a mythologizing of actual events - the fierce,
red-haired Celts from Europe descending noisily upon this little
island, driving a wise but diminutive race into hiding . . .
It has been said that the last
Leprechaun supposedly died in the 1600's, but as there is an
identical account of the "Last Fairy Funeral" occurring
in England at the same time we may discount both. No Leprechauns
At any rate, if you're lucky
you may find one, you may even lay your hands on him (which you
must do if you're to obtain his pot of gold), but as sure as
St. Patrick will never find a home in the Reptile Hall of Fame
you can be certain that the little fellow will find some way
to trick you into taking your eyes off him - whereupon he is
legally allowed to vanish into thin air, leaving you as poor,
a little wiser, and possessed of a great tale which no one will
That's for Leprechauns - the
Banshee probably merits more space in an issue closer to Halloween.
Suffice it to say that Banshees are localized ghosts, always
female, always related to the family they haunt. Their mission
is to emit a loud, keening, terrifying wail to presage a death
in the family. To have a banshee of one's own is actually considered
something of an honor - it proves you are a member of an early
and important Irish clan. But my tongue runneth over and there's
whiskey in the jar, so I'll subscribe to the better part of wisdom
and fare you all well for a time.
And so, since it falls unto
my lot that I should rise and you should not,
May the Lord keep you in His
hand - and never close His fist too tightly on you,
May the grass grow long on
the road to hell for want of use,
May you live to be a hundred
years - with one year extra to repent,
A health to your enemies' enemies,
May your right hand be always
stretched out in friendship and never in want,
Health and long life to you,
the woman of your choice to you, a child every year to you, land
without rent to you, and may you die in Ireland.
(dedicated to Aunt Maude, last
of a generation of Walshes, who passed on earlier this year at
the too-young-by-half age of 99)
Ahhh, and where would
we be without the usual links?
Arguably one of the most comprehensive
sites on the web. Check out the links page - you'll be perusing
them till next St. Paddy's Day!
Patrick's Day page, with good links.