St. Patrick may have been a Briton by birth, but he’s an adopted Irish legend. I’d like to think he’d have one of those Texas style bumper stickers custom made for Ireland, “Not Irish by birth, but moved here as fast as I could” At least he’d get one of those after running away from Irish slavery, then returning to his former slavers as a missionary.
With red-hair, green eyes, and a rambunctious personality, I’ve always been labeled as an Irish-American. For a few years I tried to ignore the label, hoping I could pass as a Scot or English or anything else. But doing a little genealogy research, I realized I was more than likely 100% Irish. For a time this bothered me. Irish? Didn’t that include nasty tempers, drinking, and a less-than-savory history?
Of course, I was wrong. Doing just a bit of research on my kinspeople made me realize how resilient the Irish truly are. Besides having the highest concentration of redheads in the world, they are a magnificently independent, accomplished people. Over the years, I’ve drafted a list of some of my favorite Emerald Isle heroes. And I love running across new heroes and learning we share a common island ancestry.
My Favorite Irish Legends
The quintessential English writer? Not exactly. CS Lewis spent his childhood around Belfast, before being shipped to England to finish his education. And he didn’t have the nicest impression of England either.
“The strange English accents with which I was surrounded seemed like the voices of demons. But what was worst was the English landscape … I have made up the quarrel since; but at that moment I conceived a hatred for England which took many years to heal.”
CS Lewis was inspired by Celtic (And Norse) mythology. His favorite poet was fellow Irishman Yeats. Moving in his English literary circles he wrote “I am often surprised to find how utterly ignored Yeats is among the men I have met: perhaps his appeal is purely Irish – if so, then thank the gods that I am Irish.”
Undoubtably, Celtic mythology lost some soul appeal once CS Lewis met Christ. But after years of Irish influence, Lewis was able to bring the fairy tales of his childhood into his Narnian writings.
Although CS Lewis spent the rest of his adult life in England, he remained an Irishman at heart. Speaking of meeting an fellow countryman he wrote.
“Like all Irish people who meet in England, we ended by criticisms on the invincible flippancy and dullness of the Anglo-Saxon race. After all, there is no doubt, that the Irish are the only people: with all their faults, I would not gladly live or die among another folk.”
You can’t disagree with CS Lewis, right? The poor fellow had to spend his adult life in England, but he’s still an Celtic native son.
Those Protestant Men
While Americans labored seven years for independence, the Irish had a much longer fight.
800 years of British rule.
It all started with the Norman invasion of Ireland almost 1,000 years ago. And like most of Irish history, they were invaded because of religion. But compared to the later years, the Norman occupation wasn’t a problem.The Normans and Irish squabbled, before the Irish church assimilated.
Their British relationship truly began to splinter with King Henry the 8th. The infamous husband of six wives did not get along with the emerald isle. The Irish didn’t appreciate his break with the Catholic church, nor did Henry appreciate their stubborn refusal to join his new religious group.
But life truly went downhill under the rule of Queen Elizabeth I. Breaking the Irish leadership in battle, the Catholic Irish nobility was forced to flee their homeland. This left Ireland open to colonization.
Colonization never works well for native people. And the Irish suffered abominably. The Irish social structure collapsed, their land ceded to foreign, protestant English nobility. The Catholic Irish lost almost everything, any rebellion against England crushed.
Enter the Protestants. Beginning with the first rebellion under Queen Elizabeth, wealthy Protestants unified for Irish Independence. They backed plots against the English throne, cheered the American rebellion, and formed a coalition for Irish Independence. Drawing inspiration from the Enlightenment and watching Republican ideas sweep across Europe, Irish protestants began to harass England for Irish rights.
Remember, these Irish rabble rousers were Protestants. They could own land, vote and hold political office. They weren’t poor like their Catholic Irish neighbors. Protestants were privileged in Ireland, while English law stripped Catholics of their rights. While England divided Ireland over religion, the United Irishmen formed to unite both the Catholics and Protestants against British oppression.
Since I first heard about the United Irishmen, I’ve been proud of them. Many of these Protestants, and later Catholics, were killed fighting for independence. When I’m feeling especialy Irish, I like to listen to a ballad, Those Protestant Men, which tells their story.
So you sow your laws with dragons teeth and soon you’ll see that you’ve sowed the seeds of bigotry
Be Englands fool, divide they’ll rule, so they set to break the United Men
And they killed them in the fields and some in jail and some upon the Gallows high
When Willie Orr did die, his very last cry was, “Unite and fight brave Irishmen”
So here’s to those great Protestant Men
Who gave their lives to free our land
All the people sang their praises then
For those brave United Irishmen
You can read a short, but more detailed synopsis of the Irish Independence movement here
The Kennedys are probably the most famous Irish-Americans. And while I salute John Kennedy’s courage and his leadership, my personal favorite Kennedy is the middle child, Robert Kennedy.
Historians don’t debate the solemn, responsible, steadier reputation of the younger Kennedy brother. I recall reading an anecdote of the Kennedy trio – John, Ted and Robert. While a photographer urged the brothers to stand together for a photo shoot, Ted urged his older brother to step closer. Robert hesitated, caught in the middle between his two brothers, reportedly saying, “No, it’s just you two.”
His brothers knew he was different. John F Kennedy liked to joke about Robert’s quiet determination while using Robert’s disciplined work ethic to attack the mafia and advance the Kennedy family political clout. And when his older brother died, Robert stepped into the role of family patriarch. While the rest of his family lauded Robert’s leadership, the troubled Robert read Greek tragedies and compared himself to Agamemnon, perhaps believing his family was doomed.
While other politicians lamented the problems of poverty, Robert grieved for the poor. He was a rare politician, visiting Indian reservations and suffering southern Black communities. Friends recalled him weeping over the poverty he witnessed, his conscience tormented by broken promises of aid.
“There are those that look at things the way they are, and ask why? I dream of things that never were, and ask why not?”
Friends shook their heads at Robert Kennedys optimism, his piety and his faithfulness. While his brothers were notorious womanizers, Robert was teased for his own marital fidelity. His children remembered his affectionate parenting and his desire to see right done in the world. The night before his assassination, he rescued his son from a riptide.
Today historians wonder what a Robert Kennedy presidency might have done for America. Would he have kept the democratic party from splintering? Prevented the scandals of the Nixon administration? Brought the Vietnam conflict to a better resolution?
Robert Kennedy is a haunting what if in American history. A truly great Irish-American who brought his tenacious Irish spirit into his fight to change the world.
Hugh O’Flaherty is often called The Scarlet Pimpernel of the Vatican.
He saved over 6,000 lives from the Nazis, including Jewish refugees and American fighters caught on the wrong side of enemy lines. He was awarded a pension by the Italian government, but never used it. After the war, he regularly visited his Nazi nemesis, offering his former enemy forgiveness and companionship.
Like many caught in Hitler’s Europe, the Vatican did not know how to respond to Hitler’s policy. In order to protect the church and Catholics from Nazi aggression, the pope chose to officially ignore the Jewish plight.
Father Hugh O’Flaherty served at the Vatican. Ireland remained neutral during the war, and as a both a Catholic priest and an Irishman, he was safe from the Nazis. When the Italians surrendered to the Allies and German tanks rolled into Italy, Italian and American soldiers turned to O’Flaherty for help. The official church stance was to stay out of the wars business. But the Irishman simply could not.
O’Flaherty created a network of sympathetic Catholics to provide refuge. With this help, he was able to hide over 4,000 refugees.
The Germans knew someone was hiding refuges. And eventually they narrowed their suspicions down to Hugh O’Flaherty. However as long as the Irish priest remained in the Vatican, he was safe.
I like to think O’Flaherty was amused when the German ambassador to the Vatican informed him the Gestapo knew he was the ringleader. Why? Knowing how much the Gestapo wanted him, he began to meet his contacts on the stairs of St. Peters Basilica, under the watch, but right out of reach of the Gestapo. Such Irish nerve.
And O’Flaherty wasn’t the only Irishman in Rome with some nerve. The Irish embassy hid Jewish refugees, even hosting secret Jewish religious services in the embassy’s basilica.
The Emerald Isle and Living Today
Someday, I hope to visit Ireland. While friends joked about moving to Canada if American politics turn sour, I peg Ireland as my resort. I’m slightly worried that once I set foot on Irish shores, I’ll be hard pressed to return to my American duties. 🙂
In the meanwhile I’ll enjoy listening to my Celtic station on Pandora and save money to attend a Getty Irish Christmas concert. And I’ll brag about Ireland, advocate for Irish reunification and wear both green and orange on St. Patrick’s Day.
Do you have a favorite Irish hero? I’d love to hear your thoughts!