The Irish are one with their land. Warm,
sprightly, and whimsical on the outside, the Irish character occasionally
surfaces to reveal mercurial ups and downs of temperament firmly rooted in
steadfast stubbornness. The land is the same. A moderately moist climate
gently washes over the idyllically green land, which is dotted with lakes
and encircled with mountains, and which only occasionally breaks to reveal
the limestone of the plains or the granite and basalt of the Highlands.
Even the softness of the peat bogs belies their vital importance for fuel
and power. The Irish people and their island homeland exhibit both
tenderness and strength and bear witness also to the contrasts inherent in
After the arrival of St. Patrick in 432 C.E., Christianity spread over the
many separate kingdoms of the Emerald Isle and for the next 400 years
Catholicism, monasteries, oatmeal, milk, and leeks occupied the souls and
filled the stomachs and the working days of the Irish. Aside from those in
the religious life most of the population were farmers and shepherds. Then
this somewhat peaceful existence was shattered with Viking raids and even
the brief establishment of Viking rule. Although seldom openly attributed
to the Viking conquest of 832 C.E., could it be possible that the Vikings
left an inheritance of mischievous trolls and bottomless imbibing that
remains to this day so much a part of the legends and customs of the
For the next 700 years after the Viking occupation, the Irish had to stave
off raids, invasions, and pressures from first, the Normans (who had
already established themselves in England) and then the English. Both
Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth in the 1500s and early 1600s gradually
supplanted Irish landowners with Scottish and English owners. The Irish
(Catholics and Protestants alike) now became tenant farmers on what was
their own land. This non-resident ownership of land together with strong
grievances in many other areas of Irish life came to a head and erupted in
the conflicts of the 1700s.
But a specter more ominous than religion or politics was looming. The
wheat, oats, and barley that the Irish grew for their landlords, and the
pigs, mutton, and beef pastured on their lands never saw an Irish hearth.
Adopted by the Irish peasants as their staple food, potatoes in every
possible form became the basis of every meal. The usually gentle climate
became endless days and nights of alternately drizzling and torrential
rains and in 1821, the uneducated, misgoverned pauper peasants suffered
famine, fever and death from the first failure of the potato crops.
Increasingly, the majority of the Irish population lived on misery and
little else. Some, at this point, assured that there would be priests and
a goodly supply of potatoes in the New World, set out for life in North
Those Irish who decided not to emigrate managed to survive and the next
year enjoyed, if nothing else, a profusion of potatoes so plentiful that
it is said they were even used as fertilizer. The respite in the form of
food for all, however, hardly made up for the almost slave-labor
conditions in the cities and the general oppression in the countryside.
England and Scotland were glutted with unskilled labor; poverty, disease,
and death were commonplace. And the blighted potato crops of 1845 were
only the fore-shadowing of the disastrous total crop destruction in 1846.
The beleaguered government chose a policy of eviction and forced
emigration, a far less costly strategy, they decided, than attempting to
support the starving disease-ridden thousands in workhouses.
So it was that almost two million Irish – almost 40 percent of the
population – prematurely aged, haggard, sick with cholera, typhus, and
dysentery, allowed themselves to be herded onto filthy ships to the New
World. Many died on hoard, others soon after landing. Those who managed,
by miracle or inner fortitude, to survive were given three-quarters of a
pound of bread and the same amount of meat for six days and then they were
on their own.
While the Irish back home fought for survival as well as independence from
the English, those in the New World applied their inner stubbornness to
building roads, homes, and sawmills and clearing land for their own farms.
Others became soldiers or political and religious leaders. But always the
lilt of Gaelic (Irish language) and laughter could be heard over the clink
of glasses wherever the Irish gathered. And as memories of the misery of
their lives in Ireland softened with time (although it is said that the
Irish have a long memory) they kept alive too the memories of leprechauns,
hearth-baked soda bread, St. Patrick's Day and the Blarney stone (whoever
kisses it will have a "golden tongue").
What other holiday is celebrated with such a mixture of wistful sadness
and uninhibited joy? Who but the Irish could turn their St. Patrick's Day
Parade (wherever in the world it is held) into an event felt and
celebrated by all ethnic groups? Perhaps it is that March 17, St.
Patrick's Day, is more than "the wearin 'o' the green," more than parades
and drinking and sad lamenting songs; perhaps St. Patrick's Day is
celebrated by so many because most of all it portrays a yearning memory of
a dear homeland, beloved in spite of suffering. Most peoples of the world
can share that.
The struggle for independence from the English culminated in the
Foundation of the State in January 21, 1919. Disagreements, treaties, and
violence were not to end. The Irish flag, a tricolor of green, white, and
orange, was adopted in 1848. It was not until 1948 that the Republic of
Ireland finally gained British recognition, but Northern Ireland has
remained under British control. The green represented the Gaelic and
Norman-Irish while the orange symbolized the William of Orange supporters,
mostly English and Scottish. The field of white on the flag, then as now,
was meant to symbolize peace between the Irish factions. Sadly, violence
still disrupts the Emerald Isle, but hopes for lasting peace have never
burned as brightly as in the closing years of the twentieth century.
More than political miracles have been happening. It has been said that
the Irish care more about what comes out of their mouths than what goes
in. This too is changing. A food revolution of a happy sort is erupting
everywhere, and not just in restaurants. The Irish are awakening to the
luscious possibilities of their homegrown succulent lamb, creamy Irish
cheeses, the freshness of rain-washed vegetables, and the rich bounty of
the waters around them. Homegrown Irish ingredients touched more boldly
with fresh herbs and seasonings and prepared with loving perfection can
now take their place in any cuisine of the world.