Friday, March 16, 2012

Lá Fhéile Pádraig

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?






41 comments:

Kath said...

I'd love to see you use the truth. It's always good to learn something new. My sister had a Scots friend who was puzzled by St. Patrick's Day here, the way it's so big and celebratory. He asked if we celebrated St. Andrew's day. Always good to learn.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Green. Me Irish husband (third generation American). And tied for third place, Dublin and James Joyce. My hubby's birthday is on St. Patrick's Day, and you don't know how hard it is to find a card that doesn't feature leprechauns, shamrocks, beer, fake accents, or gold of the end of the rainbow. (In this economy, he doesn't want to hear it!) I say don't phony up the Irish for Americans, but do what more and more of us do in our mysteries when we have our characters talk about how CSI gets everything wrong: tell the truth. Oh, and Himself says the corned beef is authentic, not as Irish but as Irish American: "It was poor people food: they used to pickle it in big barrels, and it was cheap. They didn't eat it in Ireland."

BTW, in more than one of Maeve Binchy's books, she has the Irish being amused and irritated by what the Irish Americans expect to find when they come seeking their roots. Use the reality and the dissonance as conflict and characterization--don't sweep it under the rug.

Diane said...

I'm with the other two on this. Reality. Life - anywhere - is what it is. I think most of us realize Ireland isn't leprechauns, four leafed clover and Guiness (or not leprechauns, anyway). And it's always good to know what another country is really like.

I, too, have Irish heritage from my maternal grandmother's side. Her maiden name was McGraw. I did some geneology research and found the first McGraw ancester in tis country - Chicago - about 1817. (Grandma's father and brothers ended up as coal miners in a small town in Illinios). So it wasn't the famine that brought him here.

Mare F said...

Green grass, stone walls and wonderful music are the first three things I think when someone mentions Ireland. The I go to sheep, knitting, wool, Guiness stew, scones, strong brewed tea, and wicked senses of humor. I hope this helps.

JJM said...

Green countryside with winding roads and stone houses; a language that sings; and stories told deep into the night. The romantic view, but at least I'm aware of that. If I had been in a cynical mood when I read this (most excellent) essay, I'd have said: famine, English arrogance, and Bridget Cleary.
--Mario

Sandra Parshall said...

I think of Erin Hart's mysteries and Master of the Dance. I don't think I have any illusions about the real Ireland (I've read too much Edna O'Brien for any illusions to persist), but I know a lot of people have an idealized image.

Leslie Budewitz said...

Three things? I think of Guiness, Sister Marguerite (my h.s. French teacher, as Sister of Mercy from Londonderry), and Alice Terry, my Irish great-grandmother. (I do NOT think of my alma mater, Notre Dame -- the sports teams were the Ramblers for decades then got the moniker Irish as a pejorative, and couldn't shake it, so they had to embrace it.)

Some of the characters in Tana French's Faithful Place worked at the Guiness plant. Twas a step up and a great coup in the Place to land a job there.

Sheila Connolly said...

Thank you all for your comments. I don't want to sugarcoat the country, and I know it has its problems (the rise and fall of the Celtic Tiger is like a condensed mini-version of the US's troubles, leaving Ireland with 14% unemployment and housing values cut in half). But still...there is a magic, a timelessness. One on trip there we kept stumbling across rainbows--yet we saw rain only one day out of ten. By the last rainbow I was saying, "enough already--I get it." It's going to be fun balancing all the bits.

Debbie L. said...

Be truthful. I had lunch at the local Irish pub today. I sat at the bar next to a woman who wants to visit Ireland someday. I told her to travel independently, not with a tour group. That way she would not have to see just touristy sites, shop at touristy stores and eat at touristy restaurants. I suggested renting a cottage and doing her own grocery shopping. I mentioned taking the train north and south of Dublin, visiting the coast. I mentioned visiting my cousins, having dinner at their home, and seeing ancestral farms, places that tourists don't go. I also told her about the Harding Hotel and the Vikings. And your new Irish series! I even wrote down your name and the names of your 3 series on a paper napkin. Anyway, I think you should show the real Ireland. Nothing wrong with that. And I'd like to go back with you again someday!

Debbie L. said...

P.S. And the 3 things: genealogy, green, . . . . does it have to be only 3? Too hard to make a commitment!

Liz said...

I think of the music, the beautiful language and the stone walls. Please don't sugar coat your books. I am ever so tired of wanting to learn the real history and being misled. I am of Irish descent and I have been doing geneology research. I've learned so much and there is so much more to learn. Please, Please don't water it down. Just say it like it is. This Irish American will appreciate it.

Judy D said...

1 - green clover
2 - Blarney stone
3 - potatoes
right off the top of my head, but if I think deeper (having never been there but have a tidbit of Irish in me I'm sure),
1 - celtic music and dance
2 - craft items
3 - my American friend who married an Irishman and moved over there and her baking bread.
And just yesterday I learned the significance of wearing green (Catholic) and orange (Protestant). I'd never known the relevance.

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