In Patrick's Footsteps

March 17, 2014

I was just going along for the ride. My good wife had always wanted to go to Ireland. Since I didn’t speak Irish, and since I didn’t have any known Irish ancestors, I wasn’t sure why I should go. Still, since it meant so much to my beloved spouse and since it was our thirtieth wedding anniversary, I thought I should go along with her.

We flew into Shannon. Immediately, we had a wrinkle. Lots of wrinkles, actually, since our airline lost our bags. Happily, my missus had planned an extra day in the little town of Ennis prior to the start of our scheduled tour.

We rushed to the local department store to buy some extra clothing for what we expected would be a 10-day stay. Everywhere, the people were amazingly friendly. So we decided to take a walking tour of Ennis. It was not known as a tourist spot, but tour guide Jane O’Brian could make any stop interesting.

With her freckles and long red hair, she seemed my idea of Irishness. She started by asking each of us for our Irish roots, our connections. Most in our group of ten listed relatives who had come from Ireland to America in the 19th century. My wife named her grandfather, Jim Daugherty, a good Irish name. When Jane got to me, I said I had no Irish roots. “Well, where are your people from,” she pressed. “Denmark,” I said, thinking it might be more diplomatic to avoid all those Germans in the family tree. “Ah, sir,” she smiled, “the Danes founded Waterford, Wexford, and Dublin. You’re home!” Well, from that moment, I felt at home.

Throughout our Irish vacation, we traveled the West and saw the sights. It was the greenest and cleanest place I’d ever been. They actually have “Tidy Village” contests in Ireland, so proud they are of their neat whitewashed cottages with their thatched roofs.

Everywhere we went, we saw large cemeteries from the Nineteenth Century Potato Famine. These there were for those who never survived to immigrate to America. The Celtic crosses speak to the deep Christian roots of this ancient people. Our guides put special emphasis on the term potato of the famine. That was because, they told us, there were plenty of other grains produced by Ireland in those years of the 1840s. But absentee English landlords required that those grains be shipped to England in fulfillment of prior contracts.

Thousands of Irish immigrants booked passage aboard ships to America. Many of these were so unhealthy that they were called “Coffin Ships.” Many an Irish village celebrated their departing sons and daughters in parties that differed little from the famous Irish wake. They doubted they would ever see one another again.

The soil of the West is so thin that it can barely support vegetation. English conqueror Oliver Cromwell complained in the 1650s that these counties contained “not enough soil to feed a man or to grow a tree to hang him on.” Cromwell is not, needless to say, a local hero.

Our guide tells us that Ireland was historically too poor to afford “modern” agricultural techniques. Thus, their beef cattle were grazed only on mineral-rich grass. Now, Irish beef is the most prized in Europe. (I can attest that Ireland had the best beef I have ever tasted. And the best fish, lamb, and pork, too. As well, the best potatoes, bread, and butter. I have the numbers on my scale to prove it!)

The best part of our Irish trip was to stand in a sixth century church in Glendalough.

Ireland gives you this sense of the Church Eternal. They have survived invasions by Danes, by Vikings, by English, and other barbarous raiders bent on destruction. Just to see these ruins, these ancient walls, is to realize what Jesus meant when he said “the gates of hell” will not prevail over His Church.

When we got to Dublin, the only big city on our route, we ran to O’Connell Street, the major thoroughfare. I wanted to see the General Post Office, the scene of the famous, failed Easter Rebellion of 1916. Entering the impressive classic facade, we saw postal clerks dispensing stamps and taking in packages. Could this be the place where the British fired artillery point blank? We asked an aged guard -- a squat fellow who looked for all the world like Archie Bunker -- if this was the scene of “the Rising.”

“Ah, sure,” said Joe, as he pointed to a bullet hole still visible in the high window. We asked Joe what he thought of the idea of a Royal Visit to Ireland by Queen Elizabeth II. It was a question raised by some of our fellow American tourists. Joe answered with a fierce look. “The French had the right idea about monarchs,” he said, drawing his finger across his throat.

Then, Joe pointed outside to the bustling commercial street named for Irish patriot, Daniel O’Connell. “Look up and down the street,” he gestured, “you’ll see German flags and Swiss flags, American flags and Chinese flags, but you’ll never see that Butcher’s Apron anywhere in Dublin,” he said. He meant Britain’s Union Jack. (Shudder)

Actually, the Queen did visit Ireland, in 2011. And in general, the visit came off without any untoward incidents. But Irish national feeling is still strong.

They say the Irish are “drunk on history.” With my love of history, it was like discovering a new planet. I went on a history bender. I gained a much deeper appreciation of my own beloved America by understanding the struggle of millions of Irish who came to join us in the Great Republic.

Visiting Ireland, I finally understood my late friends, Joe Barrett and Mike Schwartz. They had actually led demonstrations against Queen Elizabeth II when she came to the White House in 1992. I was inside the gate, holding my little Union Jack of welcome. Joe and Mike were protesting outside. They were two of the strongest pro-lifers whose ancestors hailed from Eire. They gave me the strength to carry on, even when all looked grimmest.

When my wife and I saw the Book of Kells at Dublin’s Trinity College, our guide was Dervla, She is a highly educated Irishwoman of decidedly liberal views. She made that clear from the start. “We’re not so much interested in what the monks were writing, but in the marvelous artistry of their illuminations,” She was literally praising the letters while ignoring the spirit that lives through those brilliantly illustrated Gospel pages that date from 800 AD.

My wife looked at me as if to say: Don’t make a scene, please. I didn’t. But I did marvel that Dervla could lead tours of this ancient treasure and miss the testimony of Christian faith and fidelity that they represent. I was reminded of a quote from Martin Luther about scholarly unbelievers: “They behold these wonders like a cow staring at a new door.” The Book of Kells is alone worth a trip to the Emerald Isle. Everything else is pure joy.