This morning, I woke up with “Wearin’ O the Green” stuck in my head. It’s not the most cheerful of songs:
They’re hanging men and women for the wearing o’ the green
But then again, most Irish rebel songs aren’t. St. Patrick’s Day is one of my favorite holidays, but not because it’s an excuse to drink green beer (ew) and carouse in the streets wearing shamrock deedleboppers. For much of my life, St. Patrick’s Day has meant the general public appreciates – if for just a day or a weekend – a culture that’s in my bones, if not my blood.
I wander her hills and her valleys
and still through my sorrows I see
a land that has never known freedom
and only her rivers run free
My heritage is more German than Irish, but my dad played in an Irish band for the majority of my childhood and teen years, quitting to join the clergy as a deacon. (And if that’s not the most Irish way to do it, I don’t know what is). I grew up playing cards next to a subwoofer guzzling Shirley Temples, falling asleep to the band practicing in my living room or on the back porch of the guitar player next door, and spending so many weekends at bars in South Buffalo, where signs are in Gaelic as well as English.
And for one weekend a year, I can relax in the sounds of my childhood. They’re not always happy songs. Hell, not usually.
Armoured cars and tanks and guns
Came to take away our sons
But every man must stand behind
The men behind the wire
The Irish have a long, embattled history of war, famine, terrorism and heartache that’s not over yet. It’s still a country divided, and yet, we celebrate St. Patrick’s Day with garish green clothes and corned beef and cabbage without acknowledging what being Irish really means. What the Irish really suffered – are still suffering – and why we have such a vibrant Irish culture in America today. This is not a think piece about how America has sanitized Irish culture. But it’s not not that, either.
Not for them a judge and jury
Nor indeed a trial at all
But being Irish means you’re guilty
So we’re guilty one and all
I learned the lyrics to songs like “Men Behind the Wire,” “The Broad Black Brimmer” and “Four Green Fields” before I knew who N’SYNC was. My dad had to explain to me why “feck the queen” wasn’t a nice thing to say, even if the men greeted each other with it in place of “slainte” more often than not. And I knew, before I understood why, that these songs were not just entertainment but a reminder of why we have music in the first place. To keep a culture alive. To remember the dead and the sacrifices they made. To encourage a community to stay hopeful, even when forces stronger than individuals seek to tear us apart.
Oh all the money that e’er I spent
I spent it in good company
And all the harm that e’er I’ve done
Alas, it was to none but me
Because Irish rebel music isn’t sad, not all the way. It’s a call to arms, often. But mostly, it’s a call to come together, to link arms and sing and dance and lift a glass to the country that bore you, or your ancestors, or the people who brought you the music, if neither applies.
My dad’s band ended every gig with “A Parting Glass,” to celebrate those things. And you were likely to get a shillelagh to the back of the head (or an empty pint glass, if the elderly had gone home) if you didn’t stand and raise yours. Because that’s what being Irish is all about: standing together against the world.
And it strikes me today, while our country roils with turmoil over immigration, that St. Patrick’s Day exists to celebrate a large subset of, yes, immigrants. Of people who came fleeing famine, war, oppression, the same way so many are doing today. It feels odd to celebrate one culture while denying so many others, and maybe that’s a stretch. But I don’t think it is. Just a couple of decades ago, they were killing men and women for wearing green. Today, they’re killing men and women for so many other reasons, and they’re no less worthy of refuge than we were. I can’t help but see the link between Irish rebel songs and the refugees fleeing their own countries today.
Come all ye young rebels, and list while I sing,
For the love of one’s country is a terrible thing.
It banishes fear with the speed of a flame,
And it makes us all part of the patriot game.