Saturday, March 17, 2007

Being Irish will not kill us, but it will surely break our hearts

"To be Irish is to understand that in the end, the world will surely break your heart."-Daniel Patrick Moynihan

Politics aside, I always thought there was a lot of truth in that statement from the late maverick Senator from New York. The Irish as a people have succeeded beyond our collective wildest dreams in nearly every area of life and on every continent of the world-with the notable exception (until very recently) of the very island that bore us. Americans of every stripe, creed, and color will celebrate Ireland today, and everyone will be proud to be Irish, at least for a day. The imprint of Irish culture, however, has woven its way into so many aspects of our way of life that we cannot count them. From just a Tennessee perspective alone, so much of our music, art, and even our way of thinking owes much to the Irish and Scots-Irish who settled the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains and the Cumberland Plateau. It wasn't just Tennessee, either. If you could draw a massive line from Pennsylvania arching down through Kentucky and Tennessee into Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi, the Celtic influence in that area is massive.

As others have pointed out, in spite of the Presbyterian aversion to drink, it says quite a lot about our cultural influence that one of our State's most famous landmarks is a
whisky still (we actually have two of them -that are legal, that is). Kentucky is packed with distilleries from one end of that Commonwealth to the other-though several of them can be found near Bardstown, and many of those are so old that they date to the founding of the Republic itself. We are a distilling culture-if it is an edible crop, an Irishman will find a way to distill it. When our anscestors couldn't transport corn across the mountains to market, they distilled it and transported it that way. When the federal government tried to tax it, they rebelled. When the rebellion got put down anyway, a small number of them continued to make it tax free generation after generation.

A deep devotion to Christianity was brought here from Ireland-it makes sense, since nearly everyone who came from Ireland learned very quickly that Jesus Christ was the only man that they could trust. Nobody can fight about religion better (or worse) than the Irish can. Most people in East Tennessee are used to the Baptists, Methodists, and Presbyterians having their differences, but as anyone who has seriously studied Irish history can tell you, differences of religious opinion are simpler, and yet much deeper than our petty quarrels. In Ireland, the matter is as simple as Catholic versus Protestant, and yet it is as
deep as five centuries of animosity. As a Catholic, I am reminded daily of how successful the British almost were at wiping out the faith that St. Patrick brought to Ireland to begin with, at least in the North of Ireland. The dearth of Catholics in heavily Celtic East Tennessee is a historical result of a long process of ethnic and religious cleansing, in which the English successfully managed to not only plant Protestants in Northern Ireland, but deliberately attempt to destroy Catholicism there, often by theft or bribery. As was the nature of the English at the time, they turned on the Presbyterians that they relied on for support. In spite of Presbyterian support for the Williamites, the Ulster Presbyterians were excluded from power in the post-war agreement after the Battle of the Boyne. They suffered the same fate as the Catholics they were made to hate-exclusion. Many of them, dissolutioned with English rule and the wars they had fought, came to the New World, and a good many of those people or their decendants settled in East Tennessee.

Whether it is music or food or whisky or politics, the culture of this country and of Tennessee has been forever imprinted with an Irish image.

Last year's St. Patrick's Day post

Irish Americans and Politics



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