An A to Z of Irish Culture
As most of you have noted by now, I’ve greened up the Whatever to help celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. But as most of you didn’t know, technically, this year St. Patrick’s Day was last Saturday — the Vatican moved it up a couple of days to avoid conflicting with Holy Week. However, today is still the day people will go out carousing, so, congrats, St. Pat; you got yourself two days this year.
Be that as it may, I will not be out carousing; I have too much work to do. But I wanted to make sure I left you all something holiday-themed, so I dug through my secret archives and found the following piece I wrote for a St. Pat’s Day-themed area on AOL a dozen years ago. Oh, don’t look like that; it’s still a fun read. It is, in fact:
An A to Z of Irish Culture
Before you head on out into the big world on Saint Patrick’s Day, shouting “Erin Go Braugh” to strangers and pinching anyone who is not wearing green, ask yourself this question: How much do I really know about the Irish? Can I improve on this situation without much effort? And what does “Erin Go Braugh” mean, anyway?We want you to be able to immerse yourself in a hop- filled vat of Hibernian information, without taking too much time to get up to speed. So we’ve compiled this alphabetic list of tantalizing trivia, one subject for each letter of the alphabet. Take a swing through this, and you’ll be able to impress any Irish folk you meet, and, more importantly, stump your friends during bar bets.
By the way: “Erin Go Braugh” means “Ireland Forever.” Now you know.
A is for Abbey Theatre — It must annoy the English that the first English-speaking repertory theater, the Abbey, was established by the Irish. But that’s what you get when you’re not paying attention. The theater was founded in Dublin in 1904 by W.B. Yeats and Lady Gregory, and was designed to highlight Irish playwrights and Irish themes; among the plays that had their first appearance in the limelight at the Abbey were “Playboy of the Western World,” by John Millington Synge and “Juno and the Paycock,” by Sean O’Casey. The Abbey burned down in 1951, but was rebuilt on the same spot in 1966.
B is for Blight — Blight is a fungal disease that attacks vegetables, particularly in wet weather. Ask the Irish about blight, and they’ll tell you about the Great Famine of the 1840’s, in which Ireland’s main staple of potatoes was struck by the fungus, causing a third of the island’s population (about 1.6 million) to emigrate, primarily to America, and thousands upon thousands to die. It’s a depressing subject, and you may have to pay for a round of beer to cheer everyone up afterwards.
C is for Celts — “Celtic” these days is marketing shorthand for “Something Irish that we want to sell to a higher income bracket.” In fact, though Ireland’s history is greatly influenced by the Celts, the Celts were in the heart of Europe (in what is now France and western Germany) at about 1200 BC and spread out from there, charging up into the British isles and into Greece and Roman territories, even sacking Rome in 390 BC. The Romans, being the Romans, later squashed the Celts in Italy, France and the British Isles. Today, besides Ireland, Celtic influences are still strong in Wales, Brittany (in Western France) and the Scottish Highlands.
D is for Druids — The major religious group in the British isles, until supplanted by Christianity between the second and fifth centuries AD. Alas, most common knowledge of Druids is taken from Led Zeppelin albums and reading Tolkien books while (ahem) in less linear frames of mind. But the Druids were always misunderstood: in Roman times, Pliny believed they were cannibals. One common belief about the Druids that is true is their reverence for botanical objects, particularly oak trees and mistletoe. Their devotion has remnants to this day: when you kiss someone under the mistletoe, thank a Druid.
E is for Earls, the Flight of — A great percentage of Irish history is about trying to have done with those pesky British, and The Flight of the Earls, in1607, is one of the low points in this battle: The earls O’Neill and O’Donnell, along with about 100 of their chieftain compatriots, hightailed it for Rome after English king James I declared English law the law of Ireland as well. Some books trace the root of this flight to a battle in Kindale in 1601, in which the Irish lost some 2000 men and the other guys lost, well, one. That’s gotta hurt.
F is for Fairies — The wee folks, the little people, brownies, elves, goblins, trolls, pixies, banshees, sylphs, sprites, and, of course, leprechauns. Every culture has them, but the Irish seem to have more fun with them than most. Folks who discount these stories will be interested to know that there’s a runway at Shannon International airport that’s in a difference place than it was intended, because the original path ran through a “fairy fort” (a mound ringed by trees), and the workers refused to deal with it. Superstition or Byzantine labor tactic? Either way, it worked.
G is for The Giant’s Causeway — A stunning rock formation of pillars, on the northern tip of the Irish Island, which look like a series of steps designed for very, very large people. This is what the locals thought, at least: legend has it that it’s part of a road for giants that led to Scotland. Scientists, on the other hand, explain that is most likely the work of a cooling and contracting phase of a basaltic lava flow. This is why scientists are so rarely asked to tell fairy tales.
H is for Harp — The Harp is the official national symbol of Ireland, not the shamrock or a little red-headed guy in breeches and buckled shoes, although the latter two certainly lend themselves better to advertising and clip art. For the record, an Irish harp is a frame harp (as opposed to an arched or angled harp), that features a curved bow and seven finger levers, or ditals, that allow the player to change the pitch of the strings. Just the sort of thing to impress that cute harpist (or whatever it is they call themselves these days) that you met at the symphony social.
I is for Ireland — Of course. “Ireland” is the Irish island, which is currently divided into two separate political entities: The Republic of Ireland, which takes up the bulk of the island, in the south, and Northern Ireland, a part of the United Kingdom, situated (as luck would have it) in the north. The island itself is about 300 miles long, running north to south, and about 175 miles wide, running east to west, which makes it, more or less, the size of the great state of Indiana. The population is Indiana-sized, too, at about 5 million for both Ireland and Northern Ireland. To continue the weird Ireland- Indiana symbiosis, Roman Catholics are the largest religious denomination in both areas (about 20% of the population of Indiana and 95% of the Republic of Ireland) and the sports teams at Notre Dame University, located in South Bend, Indiana, refer to themselves is the Fightin’ Irish! This incredible string of coincidences is taking its toll. You’d better sit down.
J is for James Joyce — Some argue that the Dublin-born Joyce is the greatest writer in English in the 20th Century. Others argue that the fellow simply liked stringing random words together. They’re both right. It doesn’t make things any clearer, though, does it.
K is for Kells, the Book of — Gorgeous book of illuminated script, created by Irish monks in the 8th century AD and now residing at Trinity College in Dublin. It’s the sort of book they don’t make any more, mostly because it’s difficult these days to find a group of monks willing to spend years painstakingly etching and painting Latin onto handcrafted vellum. They’re all off making CDs of Gregorian chants or something. Slackers.
L is for Leprechauns — You know ’em, you love ’em. Today they’re best known for hawking alarmingly sugary children’s cereals and starring in schlocky horror films, but leprechauns are traditionally shoemakers. So don’t be surprised if one day your children are asking for “Air Luckys”. Leprechauns traditionally own a pot of gold, which you can get from them by capturing them and threatening them with physical injury. Normally, by the way, this is called “mugging.” Just so you know.
M is for Saint Malachy — The other Irish saint, the one whose feast day is not widely celebrated by drunken hordes spilling into the streets and demanding to be kissed due to a tenuous connection to the Irish nation. Malachy, who is often regarded as the greatest successor to St. Patrick, lived in the 12th century AD and held a number of bishoprics and was even at one time the papal prelate of Ireland. Malachy had a tendency, however, to be self-downwardly mobile (he gave up an Archbishop’s position in Armagh to occupy a less exalted position in Down). Malachy is credited with restoring ecclesiastical discipline and unifying the church in Ireland, and he was sainted in 1199.
N is for No — According to “Ireland: An Encyclopedia for the Bewildered” by K.S. Daly, in the Irish language (that would be the Celtic language, not English with an accent) there is no direct translation for the word “No.” A negative answer has to be expressed otherwise (Q: “Was it you I saw, dancing a jig down at the pub?” A: “It was not me that you saw, dancing a jig down at the pub.”). You can’t say “Yes” directly, either. Those nutty Irish.
O is for Sean O’Casey — One of the most important Irish dramatists of the 20th century. O’Casey’s plays frequently concerned themselves with the life of the Irish, and some of them were so vivid they sparked more than the usual reactions: when “The Plough and the Stars” premiered at the Abbey Theatre in 1926, audiences were so enraged by the play that they rioted. And, really, you can’t buy that sort of publicity.
P is for the Pale — Historically, an area of Ireland extending from Dublin to the port town of Drogheda. Within that area, English law prevailed (assuming, of course, that the English held the area at the time, which they did, quite a bit), and outside of it, it did not. It’s from this that we get the expression “Beyond the Pale,” which in its current form means “something clearly insane.” Which no doubt thrills the Irish.
Q is for nothing –– In the Irish language (back again to the Celtic- derived one), the letter Q doesn’t exist. Neither does V,W,X,Y or Z. This not quite as efficient as, say, the Hawaiian alphabet (which uses a mere 11 letters), but it’s up there.
R is for Rock and Roll — A quick glance at the Irish in Rock and Roll: Van Morrison, Elvis Costello, U2, Bob Geldolf (and the Boomtown Rats) Sinead O’ Connor and the Cranberries. Not a bad showing. Of course, Ireland is also responsible for Thin Lizzy. So it comes out about even.
S is for George Bernard Shaw — The English language’s second greatest dramatist, beaten only by Shakespeare. Shaw can take comfort in the fact there’s a greater drop from #2 to #3 than there is from #1 to #2. The Dublin-born playwright penned 50 plays, among them “Man and Superman,” “Arms and the Man,” “Pygmalion” (which in one of its film incarnations allowed the rather amused Shaw to nab himself an Oscar), and “Saint Joan,” the play for which he was award the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1925. Shaw was no less proficient as a critic than he was as playwright. Which puts him one up on ol’ Bill Shakespeare, frankly.
T is for Taoiseach — The Irish word for their Prime Minister. It means “Chieftain” and sounds a heck of a lot better than “minister.” Other nifty Irish political names: “Oireachtas,” is the name of their bicameral legislature, which the lower (and popularly elected) house being the Dail Eireann, and the upper house (into which members are variously appointed) the Seanad Eireann. And that’s your Irish lesson for today.
U is for Ulster — This is a word that means many different things. To begin, it is the northernmost of the four historical provinces (the other three being Connaught, Leinster, and Munster), and it also generally refers to the nine counties (Cavan, Donegal, Monaghan, Antrim, Armagh, Down, Fermanagh, Londonderry, and Tyron) that were in that province. However, the last six of these counties now constitute Northern Ireland, and Northern Ireland, because of this, is colloquially known as Ulster (which, by the way, is now divided politically in 26 districts rather than six counties). But wait, there’s more! The three Ulster counties remaining in the Republic of Ireland are collectively known as the Ulster Province. Got it? There’ll be a test later.
V is for Eamon de Valera — This fellow with the distinctly non-Irish last name was nevertheless a founding father of one of Ireland’s most recent incarnations, and a guiding light in the two others. During the existence of the Irish Free State (1922 -1937), de Valera was the president of the executive council (read: boss). When the Irish Free State became Eire, in 1937, he was elected premier (read: boss again). In the most recent Republic of Ireland, he was prime minister (yet again boss) twice and then became president (not boss, but no reason to complain) from 1959 until 1973. And what have you done with your life?
W is for wheels — The pneumatic tire (them’s the ones what got air in ’em) was invented at the end of the 19th century by John Dunlop, a veterinarian based in Belfast (that’s in Ulster, but which Ulster? Surprise! Here’s that test we warned you about). Dunlop developed the tire after his young son experienced difficulties riding his tricycle, which had solid tires. How’s that for spoiled?
X- is for four leaf clover — Yes, it’s tenuous. But an “x” looks like a four leaf clover, if you squint. In any event, as you no doubt know, most clover and shamrocks have three leaves, so finding the rare one with four leaves is supposed to signify good luck to the discoverer. Nowadays, however, you can buy seed packets which produce nothing but four leaf clover, which, karmically speaking, has that “big cheat” feel to it. So don’t. By the way, the reason that shamrocks are important at all to the Irish is that Saint Patrick used them to illustrate the concept of the Holy Trinity. Those would have been the three-leaf versions, obviously.
Y is for William Butler Yeats — Another big gun in 20th Century Irish literature. In addition to founding the Abbey Theatre and contributing his own plays, Yeats is well known for his poetry, which includes the famous “Second Coming” (“What rough beast, its hour come round at last/ Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”), which is what people use when they want to make an allusion to Armageddon but don’t feel like hauling out Revelations. Yeats was award the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1923.
Z is for Zozimus — Zozimus was the stage name of Michael Moran, an Irish balladeer and storyteller who lived in the 18th and 19th centuries. Zozimus lived to be 97, no doubt in part due to the amusement he must have gotten watching people trying to pronounce his stage name.