Irish Identity


For 13 years I attended Catholic schools in the United States, followed with attendance for four years at a Jesuit university. It was only when I finished my schooling and traveled to Ireland that I realized for the first time, based upon names, most of these friends who were Catholic, most all of my friends, were Irish Catholic. The origins of the names had been a bit invisible but any litany of these family names on my Christmas card list would make another grand Celtic song.

So this Irish Catholic identity: was identity only an idea? Until the past generation, most European countries were identified by its religion or its music. Whatever the denomination, worship and music were used to unite a people, to energize them to work for others. Music, worship, could change the shape of the world and my shape within it. Identity was how I saw, what I liked, and what I wanted to look like.

In 2008, I was given a book called Vanishing Ireland. The writer’s theme was that the Celtic Tiger had eroded a way of life. Or something had. It was just the way the world was becoming. There was a concern in Europe about a vanishing world. In the days of the European Union. Europeans were struggling to live in a secular world with their Christian past. Vanishing Ireland was not a book so much about vanishing Catholics in Ireland as a vanishing way of life. The Catholics were still there. But the meaning and purpose of a Catholic identity in the vanishing world of Europe Union was a concern, at least to clerical leaders. (Before the revelations of the Murphy Commission, et al.)

Why all the concern over the loss of identity? My interpretation of the world depended upon whom I had come across, of that something which seemed to build over the years, this spirit within me.

In 1993, I had stayed at a bed & breakfast in Kilkenny sixteen years after my first trip. The place was operated by a woman in her seventies. Mrs. Hefferan was long-time separated. And Ireland at the time was in the midst of an election campaign whether divorce should be legally recognized in her country. In the course of a breakfast on a Sunday morning, Mrs. Hefferan revealed what was special about Kilkenny. It was her stories about the man she married. It had not been an unhappy experience for her. She just explained what happened on an island — to an American and a French woman over tea — whether to men or to dogs. After years of breeding, she felt, the men and the Irish setters inevitably just got high strung. But still Irish men and Irish setters were appreciated the world over for their companionship.

Fifteen years later — after that holiday — a pub a day is closed in Ireland. For good. The world was changing. Was there a loss of community everywhere? So what really was vanishing? As people went their separate ways?

Laura McKenzie has dedicated her life to traditional Celtic music. It had taken years to develop. And then for the next generation to learn. “I was drawn to the culture that had produced it.” This American woman learned that it was not just the notes on paper that the music was about. The mystery was in the formation process like the Cliffs of Moher, or of playing music with an older man from Sligo. Celtic music taught that when someone was gone, their life in memory became more holy. That was identity.

Civilization was a collection of cultures and the things that drew people to the culture. To produce it, took years. It took years to learn any culture. And then it was passed along. Even in the middle of no where. That was part of the draw to this culture, which certainly involved a religious, a family dimension. Even to the those caught up in exile from a diaspora.

So what did all of this means because of St. Patrick? What was the meaning and purpose of a scattering Irish Catholic identity, fought over as a sectarian battle for too much of the twentieth century, even to the scatter-brained wild rovers?

Born about 350 years after Jesus of Nazareth died. Kidnapped at a young age. This young man from the Scottish Highlands taken prisoner in 403 AD and held in captivity. For six years. Learning a new language. An escape as a stow away. A 3-day journey back to Britain.

Returning to this land years later as a priest. And with his knowledge of the language, changing the landscape where actually there were no snakes. Had there ever been?

Baptized with names that we are not anonymous. Those Irish names so that we no longer are anonymous. History and its affect on me. I had traveled to Ireland twice. In 1994 I visited the town, the homestead that still carried the family name. This fertile land was in the middle of nowhere.

Long with conflict amongst the baptized and the unbaptized, between Protestants and Catholics, over issues of human power, music if not worship was used to unite a people, to energize them to work, from this thing called identity. For others. In the mainstream, to arrive at consensus. Over who we say we are, over who we actually are, and over who God wants us to be. Out of the middle of nowhere.

Visible, on March 17th. This has turned out to be a day not so much about shared belief any more, as shared blood. Or just a shared drink. When God really trumps nationhood. Until commercialized in the secular world. Because of St. Patrick, my family has no longer been sinning anonymously, but with an identity. Drawn era after era to other Irish people, and having a fine time. With a name that generation after generation has kept trying. Bonded by the stories.

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1 comment so far

  1. paperlessworld on

    Celtic music teaches that when someone is gone, their life in memory becomes more holy. That is identity.

    Civilization is a collection of cultures and the things that draw people to the culture. To produce it, takes years. It does take years to learn any culture. And then it is passed along. Even in the middle of no where. That is part of the draw to this culture, which certainly involved a religious, a family, dimension. Even for the those caught up in exile from a diaspora.

    Did you ever locate Time in a story. Like the time knowing somehow God, like for Patrick, after his kidnapping. The force in a story, when you were held captive. How was Patrick life’s like the prophet Joseph. . . held captive… in a land so famous today for the Great Famine?

    To lose everything for which you had worked, in what you planned to pass onto your children. Adam, with Eve, in the beginning. Displaced, as refugees. When the Land seems to fail you?

    Behold the fear – the basic unsettling fear – when nothing at the end will be left. Or no one? In the Garden.

    Yes, Laura McKenzie has dedicated her life to traditional Celtic music which has taken years to develop, and then for the next generation to learn. “I was drawn to the culture that had produced it.” This American woman learned that it is not just the notes on paper that the music is about – a music about allowing yourself to be touched so deeply within.

    This saving Consciousness: How unsettling generous thru the Land God is …. the Spirit. The force of Time on the Land.

    There is this photo which I have acquired this month of my great uncle, Harold, at a time when he was losing everything, with me. He had, at the time that a twelve-year old never knew, cancer. And it was because of him, this 12-year old named after his father, was able to go away to college at a young age.

    Learning a language, a culture….The second time. The mystery is in the formation process like the Cliffs of Moher, or of playing music with an older man from Sligo, passing on what now is considered to be this Irish Spirit. Saving, after you have been saved … this something so ethereal. Before the waiting in a life, to escape, to see the world.

    Yes, compare the life of Patrick to the life of Joseph. So what does all of this means – learning a language, a culture….a second time? Because of St. Patrick – the Scot who came back to Ireland a second time as a priest – the Spirit of the Land has been changed.


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