March 16, 1999
Tomorrow is Saint Patty’s Day, so we are going to celebrate it here today. I grew up in Brooklyn, in an all-Irish neighborhood. All Irish, except for me, the only Jew in the neighborhood. My friends affectionately referred to me as “Jewboy.” That was, until I went to college — that’s when they began calling me “college boy.” “Hey yo, it’s college boy back home.”
Regardless of their names for me, they did treat me with affection. Whenever we went to a party, my pals would immediately fan out and go up to every guy at the party. They would point me out and say, “See that guy over there? That’s my friend Terry Roberts, and he’s a Jew. You say anything to make him feel bad and I’ll break your face.”
And they meant it. Because, in the end, I may have been a Jew, but I was their Jew. (Did you know that the only two ethnic groups with the gene for red hair are the Irish and the Jews? Bet you didn’t.)
So, today’s program is dedicated to those guys who I haven’t seen for such a long time. Here’s to Johnny Monahan, Steve Whalen, Cookie Triola, Tommy Connelly, Jackie McNulty, Charlie Bruton, and to Dottie, Moira and the girls of Saint Vincent’s.
Here’s to every bar we ever faked our way into; to Mrs. Mary Monahan who, without knowing it, had her signature as mother on every one of our fake baptismal certificates; to every barkeep who didn’t notice; to every beer we ever hoisted, to every shot of rot gut whiskey, to every bottle of cheap wine; to every scam we pulled off and every scam we got caught at; to every verse we ever sang of “Danny Boy,” and “Brennan on the Moor,” and “The Irish Rover” and “Finnegan’s Wake.” God bless and keep you lads and lasses, wherever life has taken you. This story is about you and for you. Up the republic! (I kissed the Blarney Stone this morning, in case you couldn’t tell.)
Let me tell you about Ireland. Ireland has an enormously rich, textured and complex history. All too often, we think of Ireland as that place where the troubles are — and yet we really know so little about their origins or the history of this amazing place.
And what do you know about Saint Patrick? He was a real man, you know, and most deserving of sainthood.
So what is Ireland’s story? Good question, lads and lassies.
Archeologists date the first human settlements in Ireland to rather recent history, around 6000 BC. So while they’re a young people compared to some, the first people in Ireland obviously weren’t Christians.
Those first Irish people were classic Stone Age hunters and gatherers. That lasted until about 3000 BC, when along came the Bronze Age. People then had farming and animal husbandry. Beginning in about 2000 BC, the people there built massive stone structures and tombs, many of the megaliths that can still be seen dotting the Irish countryside today. By the First Century AD, the country was under the control of people who called themselves the Picts, described in Irish folklore as the Fir Bolg.
Then came the Celts, who had the biggest impact on Ireland. The Celts came over from Europe and dominated the island until about 1170 AD. They brought with them Iron Age skills. Check it out: the Celts were fair of skin, blond and tall. They invaded the island about the same time that Alexander the Great was invading everywhere else. What they also brought with them was a unified culture. The lives of Celts revolved around the village.
Druidism was the religion of choice for the Celts. Druids believed in many gods and particularly in gods of nature.
And this is interesting, the Celts deeply loved this island and this love led to the ancient law of “gravelkind,” under which land was considered common property.
The land was subject to the rights of the families who worked or lived on it. Although what was called a “petit king” might nominally own the land, he could not transfer the ownership of it. In other words, regular people really controlled the land they lived and worked on. This sense of autonomy would define the history of the place that we know as Ireland.
Now for Saint Patrick. Saint Patrick’s time was known as a golden age in Irish history — this would have been about 410 to 800 AD, although Saint Pat was only around for about thirty years of that time, of course. He was, in fact, a real person and a real bishop, and was born in 462 AD. He was also one heck of a missionary. I mean, he was really good at what he did.
He was born in England, actually. At sixteen, he was kidnapped by Irish raiders and made a slave. He was a slave for six years and worked as a shepherd. He later escaped back to England, determined to convert the Irish to Christianity. Just like today, the seat of the Christian church was Rome. Not only was the seat of the religion far away, but conversion also meant learning Latin, so you can imagine what an uphill battle Pat had on his hands with the Irish.
Patrick was ordained as a bishop by Pope Celestine the First, and that’s when Patrick began his mission to Ireland. He conducted his mission from Armagh, in Northern Ireland, which is today, rather ironically, a Protestant stronghold.
So, Patrick began converting the peasantry and had success beyond his wildest dreams — which is really something, because this guy was an optimist’s optimist. After he converted the common people, he successfully converted the nobility.
Patrick was orthodox in his Catholic teachings, and everyone seemed to convert to that. Everyone, that is, but for the part of the populace and parish priests who, from time to time, favored the older Brehon laws of tolerance for easy divorce and marriage rather than Christianity’s stricter rules. This also tells you something about the Irish.
Patrick tried to implement the Roman model of a centralized church but, as you might expect, it never really took hold in Ireland. The Irish just considered it another manifestation of big government, which they have been known to resist throughout their history.
Up the republic, I say.
In my mind, Patrick’s great contribution went beyond his religious ministry. No, his greatest legacy is that for such a small country, Ireland has produced so many great writers, poets and cultural scholars.
Through the monastery system that he established, Patrick introduced the written word to Ireland. Prior to that, all knowledge and information was oral. The so-called “intellectual elite” believed that the written word impaired the memory and concentration. (It’s an interesting concept, and maybe not all that wrong if you think about it.)
And so through Patrick’s influence, a land that until the mid-First Century had no written tradition became the land of poets, authors and scholars. Think Samuel Beckett, Yeats, James Joyce, Sean O’Casey. Check it out: by the time Patrick died, virtually all of the Irish elite were literate.
It’s too bad that much of Patrick’s written work was destroyed by the Vikings three centuries later, but his deeds lived on. So much so that, by the sixth century, Irish monastery schools were the most prominent centers of scholarship in the western world. Students from all over Europe flooded to Ireland to be taught there.
I doubt that any of the Irish guys I grew up with had knowledge of this stuff. They all tended to have very low self esteem as far as their intellects went, which probably has something to do with how the Irish were treated when they came to this country. It also has a lot to do with the eventual subjugation of the Irish, but we need to get back to our story.
So Ireland flourished in that period of Saint Patrick’s time, up to the eighth century. Then there came a truly dark period of Irish history: the Viking tyranny, which lasted from about 795 AD through 1014.
For several hundred years, the Vikings regularly showed up and plundered Ireland; actually, they raped and pillaged and slaughtered. They went after monks and burned monasteries. These were dark and terrifying times.
Finally, in the darkest days, three rather remarkable men emerged to liberate Ireland from the Viking hoards that had now taken hold of the land. They were the brothers Mahon (and I have no doubt that my old best friend Johnny Monahan is descended from them), Brian Boru and a fellow named Malachy.
Actually, a woman by the name of Gormflaith, daughter of the King of Leinster, played a very important, highly manipulative role in bringing Ireland out of this dark age: she kept marrying key players and manipulating them to free her people.
Brian and Malachy took on the Vikings and defeated them. The two men came to lead Ireland’s ruling forces in 998. They worked things out amicably, with Brian ruling the south and Malachy the north. (So much for the myth of the brawling Irishmen.)
Finally, Brian Boru demanded that Malachy cede all of Ireland to him, to which Malachy agreed. So in 1002, Brian Boru became Ard Ri, emperor of Ireland.
Boru’s twelve-year reign is considered a high point in Irish history. He aggressively promoted art, literature and culture, giving them a newfound importance. (Keep in mind, the achievements of earlier centuries had been suppressed if not destroyed by the Vikings.) Brian was succeeded by Malachy, who reigned for eight years until his death in 1022.
But that’s when the trouble started again for Ireland. There was no clear successor to Malachy, so the country kind of fell into political chaos. This partially opened the way for the Normans.
Who were the Normans? Well, the Normans were originally Vikings who settled in France, near Normandy.
A dude named William who was a Norman duke invaded England to claim it from Harold, the leader of the Anglo-Saxons. This argument went on for a while, until he defeated the Anglo-Saxons in 1066 and crowned himself as William the First, King of England.
So, now we had a Norman-Anglo England, which did not turn out at all well for Ireland. The Norman-Anglo conquest of Ireland began about 1169, and over the next seventy-five years the English captured about seventy-five percent of Ireland. Everywhere the English went, they built castles and towns modeled on those in England that had nothing to do with Irish culture.
The big thing the Normans did was to impose a true feudal system on the lands and people they had conquered. This was a major drag and a situation that lasted a long time — some would say it still lasts.
They also introduced English common law and the jury system — not that it really did anybody in Ireland any good….
It was all pretty chaotic.
Ireland wound up divided into three geographic and cultural regions, and you can still see some of these ancient divisions in this land today.
One was “the Pale,” composed of Dublin and its surrounding area. Only English was allowed to be spoken there. English culture was totally dominant. These folks did not think of themselves as Irish, but rather as a crown colony of England.
See, the colonization of Ireland goes way back.
Then there was Gaelic Ireland. These folks had never been conquered by the Normans and had retained Gaelic customs, keeping themselves, in the process, out of the really oppressive feudal system. Ulster did not then or ever consider itself an English colony.
Then there was Norman Ireland, which was about seventy percent of the island and was composed of quasi-independent fiefdoms owned by big-time Norman lords. These were descendants of the original Norman invaders, and though they were fundamentally loyal to the English crown, they had no interest in being controlled by it. Some of what they did to the Irish would have been illegal even under English law.
But some good news was on the horizon. Beginning in the 1200s, there began an amazing Gaelic resurgence and a Norman retreat. Lots of skirmishes happened in this time.
The Normans wound up with about thirty-five percent of the land, and many of them considered themselves culturally Irish Normans. That sounds funny, but that’s the way it was. Irish Normans.
Within a few more generations, the original Normans distanced themselves from the Norman-Anglo way of life, adopting the Gaelic culture and language. In a sense, the Gaelic culture was so strongly rooted that it just finally overcame the Normans. So much so that even feudalism declined. Actually, full-scale feudalism never took hold in Ireland. They just were not the type for it.
Then came the real bummer: The Tudor dynasty in England, which lasted from 1485 ‘til about 1603.
The Tudors ousted the Catholic Church and replaced it with the Protestant church, with the King of England as its head. And here we have the seeds of the centuries-old religious conflict in Ireland. The king of England just went ahead and named himself the King of Ireland, too. In 1537, with the complicity of a handpicked Irish parliament, the Anglicans established the Anglican Church of Ireland.
This was kind of complicated, because none of the Irish bought into this idea at all and they all remained loyal to the Pope.
Of course, things just had to get worse from there. In the 17th Century, England introduced the plantation concept. By this time, the plantation concept had been practiced in the American colonies, and it was working pretty well for the English and the aristocracy over there.
Under the plantation system, more than eighty percent of the arable land in Ireland was confiscated from the native Irish. The land was given to the new immigrants, all of whom just happened to be Protestants.
Instituting a plantation system was more or less the medieval equivalent of ethnic cleansing. The English simply slaughtered the Irish — peasantry and nobility alike — in pursuit of “their” land.
Throughout all this, there were many, many rebellions staged by the Irish. The biggest was savagely crushed by a dude named Cromwell.
Now, in Ireland there were in effect two camps: seventy-five percent of the people were starving, poverty-stricken, landless, powerless Gaelic-speaking folk. Those were the Irish. The remaining twenty-five percent of the populace were the affluent, landed gentry — English Protestants.
See why the Irish don’t have much love for the English?
The important division really was really not down religious lines, Catholic and Protestant, as important as that may seem. The really important division was between a conquering people and a vanquished people, the Irish.
And it still is to my mind.
I’ll close with a story about one of the Irish guys from my old neighborhood.
We had a friend named Tommy who had just come over from Ireland. Tommy was in the IRA and had fled to Brooklyn. He got his citizenship papers and applied to the New York fire department. Now for an Irishman, applying for the New York fire department in those days, well, it was like a human being applying to breathe.
But they did have one requirement that even an Irishman had to pass: the height requirement. And Tommy was one-quarter inch too short. We had to come up with a solution. Of course, Monahan suggested putting lead in his nose and hanging him upside down from a tree for a few days, but it was ultimately Whalen’s more sensible idea that prevailed.
Whalen had read that when you lay down, you stretch out. So, we had Tommy lay flat on his back for four days, feeding him beer to keep up his spirits. Then we put him in a stretcher, which we more or less borrowed from a local hospital. We put him and the stretcher in the back of old man Monahan’s station wagon and drove him to the fire department testing station.
Me, Monahan, Whalen and Connelly carried Tommy in his stretcher up four flights of stairs and asked where the height measurer was. We walked in there and had Tommy sign his name to a form held out by a guy who’s name was probably O’Malley, tilted the stretcher right up to the height device and by God, Tommy was over the height limit by a good eighth of an inch. We donated the stretcher to the fire department and Tommy became a fireman.
A short fireman, but a fireman nonetheless.
So, let’s take this week to pray for peace on that wonderful island which has given the world so much. Tomorrow, everyone is Irish.
And as one great Irish author once said, “Damn everything but the circus.”