As St. Patrick's Day approaches, author Mary Pat Kelly is celebrating the paperback release of her novel Galway Bay. In a guest post, Kelly reflects on how the country's history of resilience can help them through present-day problems.
Bouncing back from catastrophe
guest post by Mary Pat Kelly
St. Patrick’s Day. Forty million Irish-Americans invite the whole country to a grand party. We march. We sing. We dance. We toast Slainte, we say. Good Health. Good Luck. Prosperity for All.
Except this year the economic crisis in Ireland casts a shadow. Major articles in Vanity Fair and the New York Times Magazine portray a people too bowed down under the burden of debt and a horrific clerical abuse scandal, to lift their heads let alone other people’s spirits. Yet while the Irish do face serious challenges, and the anger they feel at government, business and church leaders is certainly justified, still there is a deeper truth contained in the history of the people of Ireland and their descendents in America that needs re-stating. It’s all about resilience.
During decades of research for my historical novel Galway Bay, based on the life of my great-great-grandmother Honora Kelly, I saw again and again how the Irish, driven to the edge of extinction, somehow survived. As Honora said to her great-granddaughter who repeated it to me, “We wouldn’t die, and that annoyed them.”
“Them” being the English conquerors who seized Irish land then rented it back to the original owners. The rates were so exorbitant that all crops had to be handed over to the landlord as payment . . . except for the potato, which the English distained. But this gnarly vegetable, which became the Irish people’s only staple food, was in reality a secret weapon. The potato had unimagined nutritional value.
It’s all about resilience.
Even when their Catholicism, culture and very language were outlawed, the Irish held onto their faith, families, songs and stories. They could survive because they had the pratties to eat. By 1845, the population, reduced by Cromwell’s armies to 300,000, rose to 10 million. But then, as Honora notes in the prologue to Galway Bay, “Blight destroyed the potato crop. Three times in four years our only food rotted in the ground. Nothing to eat. The healthy crops sent away to feed England. We starved. More than one million died."
Then Honora sounds the anthem of resistance, “But we didn’t all die. Two million of us escaped—one reaching back to the next. Surely one of the great rescues in human history. We saved ourselves, helped only by God and our own strong faith. And now look at us, doing well all over the world.”
So never underestimate the Irish people. Think of Northern Ireland. In 1985 I covered a U.S. conference on the conflict attended by all of the Irish political parties, North and South. Those were also trying times. When John Hume spoke of peace it seemed an impossible dream. Yet 14 years later voters would choose peace and Hume would win the Nobel Peace Prize for his role in ending the troubles.
One night at the conference after a difficult day the young Fine Gael delegate Enda Kenny astonished us all by delivering John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address in a perfect Boston accent. As he spoke we were reminded of Irish resilience. After all, the Kennedys themselves were refugees from the Great Starvation. Now this same Enda Kenny is the new Taoiseach (prime minister). The Irish people have voted for change in unprecedented numbers. So this St. Patrick’s Day Enda Kenny will bring the traditional bunch of shamrocks to another young U.S. president with Irish roots. Barack Obama’s ancestors also endured Ireland’s greatest catastrophe and escaped to build new lives in America. They didn’t die.
As these two men meet I am reminded of the old Irish saying, “It’s a long road that has no turning." History’s arc does bend toward justice. So let the bagpipes call forth the marchers. Let the banners wave. We are celebrating a heritage of resilience. Happy St. Patrick’s Day.