by Sheila Connolly
Indulge me—tomorrow is St. Patrick's Day. I'm half Irish. What can I say?
Why is this such a popular holiday? St. Patrick (c. AD 387-461) is one of the patron saints of Ireland, and was responsible for bringing Christianity to that country. It was made an official feast day in the seventeenth century.
But over the years it has lost its religious associations and is now primarily a secular celebration of Irish culture. Well, maybe, if you believe that the Irish run around in green clothes picking shamrocks and getting drunk, after which they see leprechauns. For all of that, Wikipedia proudly states that it may the most widely celebrated saint's day in the world.
For several years I've taken classes in Irish language with a lovely woman who is over seventy and grew up in Connemara, on the west coast of Ireland, although she's lived in Boston for years. Ask her about St. Patrick's Day and she'll tell you that her people never made much of it. By "her people" she means not the entire population of Ireland but the ones she grew up with in a small town. It was just another feast day, one of many.
Millions of people left Ireland during the Great Famine, when there was no food. Or rather, there was food, but it was promised to the English landlords, and if the tenant farmers didn't deliver, they were thrown off their land. Many died: one of the most moving and disturbing sites I have seen in Ireland is the cemetery at Abbeystrowry, outside of Skibbereen in Co. Cork, where there is a single mass grave for eight thousand people who died during the famine (it may be more—nobody's quite sure). It's about the size of a football field.
A lot of those emigrants from Ireland ended up in the United States, which is why there are so many people of Irish descent here—almost 12% of citizens, according to the Census Bureau. Massachusetts, where I live, has the highest proportion of Irish descendants of any state, closer to 25%. There are still immigrants arriving, and most of the Irish-born people I know go back to Ireland at least once a year. The ties are strong.
I worry about all this because I'm writing a new series about a young American woman who ends up living in Ireland—and not because she wanted to. The thing is, the Irish don't buy many cozies, which is what I write. There is a thriving community of Irish crime writers, but they generally write grittier books. So I don't expect to sell many of my books in Ireland, which means my main audience is American. Of course, it may be an Irish-American audience that likes to fantasize about "going home." Or it may be readers who think they know what Ireland is: shamrocks and leprechauns, and a lot of Guinness.
What do I do? How far do I alter what I know of Ireland (and I'll admit that is limited, having spent maybe a month of my life there) to please American tastes? Do I take out the less pretty parts, or put in things that don't really exist but that Americans want to believe are true? I feel like I'm walking a tightrope: I want to be true to the reality, but I also want to sell books.
Maybe I should offer a quiz: what are the first three things that you think of when someone says Ireland?