Bein’ Green

20 03 2013

Sure and begorrah you’ve had enough “Slainte” and “Erin go bragh” by now but I’ve been up to other mischief so I couldn’t post this on Sunday when everybody was Irish.
One of my favorite poet’s early poems follows. Note his pen rests snug as gun. The meaning is clear to an Irishman where he stands relative to the “troubles.”

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Digging
BY SEAMUS HEANEY
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.

Under my window, a clean rasping sound
When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:
My father, digging. I look down

Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds
Bends low, comes up twenty years away
Stooping in rhythm through potato drills
Where he was digging.

The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft
Against the inside knee was levered firmly.
He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep
To scatter new potatoes that we picked,
Loving their cool hardness in our hands.

By God, the old man could handle a spade.
Just like his old man.

My grandfather cut more turf in a day
Than any other man on Toner’s bog.
Once I carried him milk in a bottle
Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up
To drink it, then fell to right away
Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods
Over his shoulder, going down and down
For the good turf. Digging.

The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.
But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.

So what is it that makes me heart pump a little faster when I think of myself as Irish. You’re sitting there thinking. What the fuck? This guy’s name is Snyder. Well ¾’s of my family are from Donegal in Ireland. The Snyder’s were from the Alsace.
It’s not easy being green or Irish, but it was easier on the East Coast in the middle of the 20th century in the Irish neighborhoods of Philadelphia than it is here in Merida. Back then the Fighting Irish were in the hunt for the college football championship year after year.

John Wayne was “The Quiet Man” and Maureen O’Hara was his bride-to-be provided he could knock out Victor McLaglen. BTW the Irish had a problem with John Ford’s idyllic depiction of the Irish countryside back then. Their opinion has changed since. It’s a beautiful film in many ways although a little over-the-top with Irish blarney, more commonly known as bullshit.

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Bishop Fulton Sheen had a weekly TV show and Bing Crosby was the #1 singer in the land. Old Blue Eyes changed that and I have to say I was glad then and I’m glad now. And what happened next was remarkable and who knows how dishonest? An Irish Catholic became president. I didn’t know back then how unpredictable and complex the world was but I do know now. Most if not all of those Irishmen have had a fall from grace.
I had no idea as a boy that the Irish writers I loved came from a tradition that had been born a millennium and a half before. There were these little Irish monks writing in monasteries that were sanctuaries for the written word. Without them the modern world would be struggling even harder to understand how the human race thought about things in the beginning when the word came into being. When I finally got to Dublin 50 years later it all made sense. That Irish sense of humor was evident even then. A monk illustrating the Bible, drew a cat in the margin of one of the pages. It’s thought to be that he was sitting there in his cell bored by the day after day task of creating one of the most revered books in the western world and there was a cat on the windowsill; so what the hell he just made a drawing of it for the Book of Kells.

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My grandmother believed in the “little people.” If you saw her you’d know why. She had the look and the spirit of the leprechaun. Her eyes twinkled when she laughed and she never missed a chance to laugh. My grandfather made lemonade from lemons when he lost his job during the Great Depression. He went in the basement and fed the family by making whisky not to drink but to sell. Thank you, Carrie Nation, and the 18th Amendment.

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We came from a land ruled by an oppressor and many of us aren’t forgiving the English when it comes to that. When asked to be included in an anthology of great British poetry since he was born and raised in Northern Ireland Seamus Heaney said :
“Be advised my passport’s green.
No glass of ours was ever raised to toast the Queen.”
My heroes as a boy were Irish freedom fighters. I didn’t know the differences among Free Staters, IRA men, and the Sinn Fein as a boy and I still don’t get it all. But what the history of Ireland did for me was make it easy and natural to be a rebel. I raised my middle finger to all those in authority at the hint of any disregard for my right to be free. No need to tell you it got me into some trouble in high school and the military.
Now about the water of life – uisce beatha – phonetically (ish’-ka ba-ha), the Gaelic words that became the English word “whisky.” The 1st mention of whisky in the written history of the modern world comes from the Annals of Clanmacnoise where an Irish Chieftain in the 13th century died from an alcohol overdose. I’ve been to Ireland and I understand how it might have happened. Fighting naked in the cold and the rain by the river Shannon just forced the man to take to drink. The more he drank the warmer he felt until….

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Finally to my point. The cliffs of Slieve League in Donegal stand 2000 feet above the Atlantic – higher than Ireland’s most famous cliffs the Cliffs of Doher. The wind blew a gale of rain stitches in my face as I stood there 5 or 6 years ago. The photo below was taken from the spot. It was the land of my ancestors I’d heard about but like many Irish-Americans it was the land of a family I’ll never know. I have never seen a picture of any of those who lived in this land from across the sea. They’d left this land to forget the sorrows, the troubles and save themselves from a potato famine that was made by politics and business as much it was by Mother Nature. It was a fucking challenge just to stand still in that blowing wind and stinging rain. That’s when it came to me. What it means to be green and Irish is to be standing as a tree rooted in the earth bending in the wind and the rain with a smile on my face to be home at last. The irony is that my home now is in Merida, Mexico where it’s not so easy being green but it’s great to be livin’ Irish with my middle finger raised to anyone who wants to fuck with my Social Security.

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