Ichabod's Kin
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The Irish and the Ides: Not Much to Party About

An 1849 depiction of Bridget O'Donnell and her...

Depiction of Bridget O'Donnell and children during the Famine, 1849. Image via Wikipedia

 

Given the rap, playful or otherwise, that all Irish American s will fall out of the nation’s bars early Friday morning, one would think this time in March is all about partying. What is overlooked in the supposed mayhem and the build-up to St. Patrick’s Day is a time of more baleful significance: the Ides of March.

Oh, each of the twelve divisions of the annual lunar cycle has its “Ides,” meaning nothing more than its mid-month. Okay, so it was fudged a bit throughout the year, being the fifteenth in March, May, July and October, and the thirteenth in the rest.

The Ides of March however would be little else but an old-fashioned term were it not for the untimely death of Julius Caesar as dramatized by Shakespeare. A seer had predicted he would not live past mid-March and its celebration of Mars, the god of war, complete with military parade.

Caesar famously noted this warning, one that fell on his ears an earlier day while on his way to the Theatre of Pompeii, but joked about it when the Ides actually came, sensing no trouble in the air. The seer who made the prediction retorted, “Ay, they have come, but they are not gone.” Indeed, Brutus and yon Cassius had something to add to that, and let’s not forget there were sixty other conspirators. That had to hurt. It was the JFK assassination of its day.

So do we party, or mourn? It’s a collision of emotion. St. Pat’s falls within Lent, when the devout are supposed to give up something they like, and who wants to party about that? The Irish had a time-honored solution: go to church in the morning, hit the bars after.

If there’s any truth to Irish love for liquor, the reason may have been self-medication, given their “troubles,” which have been many. Circumstances beyond people’s control are what occasion the great migrations of history. In their case, it was the Potato Famine of the 1840s, which they blamed on Brits and absentee landlords, forcing emigration to the U.S.

But rapid increases in immigration are what most upset the host countries, and the Land of the Free and Home of the Brave was no exception. Employment opportunity signs often carried the addendum, “No Irish Need Apply,” and they were blamed for whatever ailed our country.

This was the story of all migrants and, necessarily being in the minority, they huddled together, whether Jews, Asians, and Blacks; actually, the Irish were lumped together with the latter two in cartoonish caricatures in Boston newspapers of the time. Nearly three-fourths of servants in Boston homes were Irish, the women called “bridgets” and “biddys,” the men were branded “paddys,” and the whole lot of ‘em were dubbed “murphies.” The “Know-Nothing” political party of the late 19th century had a special hatred for the Irish. Hey, welcome, guys! And drink up!

In these latter days, there’s other excitement to numb the pain of history, like the NCAA’s basketball tourney, otherwise known as March Madness. Maybe the “madness” refers to the way we’ve treated newcomers, and the games are in honor of that.

And why not: that noble tradition of xenophobia continued with successive waves of strangers and now we’re alarmed to learn that the influx of hispanics is greater than we thought. Arizona is indebted to them for roofing their homes and toiling its fields in 120-degree heat, but you wouldn’t know it: don’t even think about moving the Statue of Liberty there.

But the price paid for exclusivity is universal. Forever after to be linked to the Ides of March will be the recent earthquake and tsunami in Japan, and the lessons continue: that country has desperately needed immigration for some time, and more so now to rebuild following the destruction, but as a society it is resistant to the newcomers. Sixty-five per cent of Japanese are opposed to them, and they guard the gates by means of a little certification test for workers who come and want to stay: one based largely on language. Learn it or begone.

That is the ugly little truth behind our understandable compassion for the destruction there. Sadly, it is still in the memory of many Japanese that a certain bomb descended on them in the not so distant past. Now nature itself has unleashed a holocaust of another sort.

And, again, such “circumstances beyond our control” may occasion another historical migration to save Japan from further destruction, this time of a self-imposed sort.

And by the way, let that be a lesson to us all, one taught to us by the Irish in America. They came, they stayed, and one became president.

I’ll drink to that.

And I’ll do it in an Irish bar.

3 Responses to “The Irish and the Ides: Not Much to Party About”

  1. I just may “re-imagine” St. Patrick’s Day as: International Get Your Irish Up Day, a day dedicated to publicly expressing your anger about all manner of things, including but by no means limited to the xenophobia of The Tiny Declining Fringe Religion. . . and perhaps even chasing a few “snakes” out of whatever territory they may be occupying.

    Care to drink to that?

  2. The re-emergence to the “Know Nothing” party is a reminder that we need to learn from our history. They first called themselves the Native American Party and later The American Party and like latter day extremists believed they were protecting true American values. They were Protestants who firmly believed that America was being taken over by by the Church of Rome and the Marxists. They considered themselves the most patriotic people of their time. They even had a secret “Order of the Star Spangled Banner.” Members of this group, when questioned by outsiders, would reply, “I know nothing.” They had some success at the polls, winning Massachusetts and almost New York , electing a completely new legislature that passed some reform legislation and conducted McCarthy like investigations of Catholic schools and convents. In Baltimore the organized “plug-uglies,” gangs of hoodlums who protected the polls from those undesirable foreigners by pluging those who could not give the password with carpenter’s awls. In 1855 they actually had a national convention and nominated the aging Millard Fillmore for the presidency. This movement led to the riots of 1840.
    Like some of the current groups that wrap themselves in the flag they were known more for who they were against than what they were for. Of them the candidate Lincoln said, “When the Know-Nothings get control, it [the Declaration of Independence] will read, ‘All men are created equal-except Negroes, foreigners, and Catholics.’ When it comes to this. I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretense of loving liberty–to Russia, for instance-where despotism can be taken pure without the alloy of hypocrisy.” Ole Honest Abe had a way with words. I wonder what he would say about the current crowd that hates foreigners and would like to revise the Constitution to limit “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”?

    • I suggest to all that anytime David Middleton makes Comment, he should be read closely as a long and serious student of history, and the relevance of context regarding many topics with which many people are familiar only anecdotally. – JB


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