With everything else going on, St.Patrick’s Day this year came and went with hardly a whisper of interest by the general public.
Just as well, I hate to admit it, but I’m a failure as an Irishman. Not for lack of trying, mind you, but I just haven’t got the hang of it yet.
To be fair, it’s been less than three months since I learned my DNA had a 16 percent Irish make-up, so I had to cram a lifetime of Hibernian culture into 90 days gearing up for St. Patrick’s Day
It didn’t go at all well. I blame the whisky, or more precisely, the whiskey.
The first thing you need to know about the Irish is they can never leave well enough alone. Characteristically, they took the Scot’s word whisky, and added an E to it for no damn reason except to be contrary.
They took that contrariness with them when they immigrated to the US, which is why American liquor is generally called whiskey. (All except Maker’s Mark bourbon, which honors its Scottish heritage by keeping the whisky on its label.)
My first impulse in my transformation was to come to a better understanding of Irish whiskey, or as the natives call it “uisge beatha,” the water of life.
In order to learn the difference between Irish whiskey and its Scottish counterpart, I set up side-by-side taste tests spaced over the course of a week involving six or eight bottles of each species. At the end of the tests, I can report the results were unintelligible, at best. All I learned was a) bottles tend to get mixed up in direct proportion to the length of the test and b) data collected at the end of the test were indecipherable.
I did learn that Irish whisky goes through three distillations compared to two for Scotch, but I got that information from the labels. The drinking was just a bonus.
Yes, yes. I am aware that I’m feeding the stereotype of the Irish as inveterate drunkards, but I have adopted the Irish response to such criticism – “What’s it to ye!”
That response brings me to the second fascinating feature of Irish culture, and that is the care and feeding of the spoken word. I can think of no other people who so enjoy talking or who are better at making the language sing. Small wonder then that the little green island has spawned so many poets.
Irishmen seem to cherish the act of speaking to such a degree that they are unwilling to let a conversation die. Consequently, nearly every declaratory sentence is converted to a question – sometimes by the rising inflection on the last syllable, sometimes by the addition of “innit?” at the end. It’s as if they insist on further discussion.
The downside of this pursuit of conversation is that it often leads to the intense expression of contrary opinions. Combine passionately held beliefs with a liberal sprinkling of the water of life, and you have the third aspect of the Irish character – incorrigible pugnacity.
It is no accident, I think, that Irish immigrants played a disproportionately large part in American armed conflicts, dating from the earliest days of the republic. Without putting too fine a point on it, they like to fight.
Following the influx of Irish immigrants after the potato famine of 1845, many found a home in the army, and as a result made up a sizable contingent of the American forces as they engaged Mexico, starting in 1846.
The Irish also – ahem – deserted in record numbers. Lured by offers of free land and Mexican citizenship, hundreds of Irish soldiers switched sides and formed the San Patricio Battalion, fighting and dying for Mexico in several fierce engagements during the length of the war.
Seventy-two San Patricios were captured, and 50 of them were charged, tried and executed for desertion – the largest mass execution in the history of the US Army.
But get this – 30 of San Patricio Battalion deserters were hanged on September 13, 1847, right in the middle of the fighting for the capture of Mexico City.
By order of Gen. Winfield Scott, they were executed in full view of the two armies while they fought the Battle of Chapultepec. They were hanged at the precise moment the flag of the U.S. replaced the flag of Mexico atop the citadel.
I don’t care how you cut it – that’s cold, innit?
That brings us to the final national trait of the Irish – their limitless capacity for misfortune. From the endless depredations of the Vikings, through the ruthlessness of Cromwell and the English nobility, to the Great Famine and the inhumanity of the Poor Laws, right up to the sectarian violence of today, the wounds suffered by that poor little island seem never to heal. It’s enough to drive a man to drink, and for that we Irishmen thank a generous God.
On St Patrick’s Day, I keep expecting to see T-shirts saying “Kick Me – I’m Irish.”
INTERESTING HOLIDAYS THIS WEEK: March 22 – National Goof Off Day (I’ve got this one wired), 23rd – National Chip and Dip Day, 25th – National Waffle Day. Enjoy.
Bill Bouldin, a Virginian by birth and a Son of Texas by nature, is a former Air Force pilot and veteran journalist who has spent many tale-weaving years on the Texas-Mexico border.