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Bodhran by Gaga Nielsen courtesy The Pure Drop

Bodhran by Gaga Nielsen

Growing up on the far South Side of Chicago, surrounded by a vast assortment of Irish names like O’Donnell, Murphy and Burke, and Irish faces of fair-complexion with freckles and sparkling blue eyes, I never felt very Irish. Although I had an Irish grandmother, I also had a Greek last name, a German mother and dark brown eyes. My somewhat olive skin didn’t go well with the Kelly Green Rugby shirts and Aran sweaters of Chicago St. Patrick’s Day celebrations. And for the most part, the Irish music I heard in my youth, which would move many Irish-Americans to tears, didn’t do a thing for me. In my opinion songs like “Danny Boy” and “When Irish Eyes are Smiling,” though fun to sing along with, were corny and dripping with sentiment that was not helped by the fake Irish accents with which they were often sung.

Then one day in the 1990’s, I opened a Sinéad O’Connor cd and everything changed. On track two of this pop/rock cd there was a song called, I am Stretched on Your Grave, which I later discovered was based upon an English translation of a 17th century Irish Gaelic poem. The track began with a drum rhythm and Sinéad’s haunting, Celtic voice and led unexpectedly to what I thought at the time was a taste of pure Irish fiddle and drum heaven! As I listened, I danced around an imaginary bonfire in my mind and plugged into a power in that music that felt ancient and tribal. This song opened the door for me to a type of Irish music I had never been exposed to before. My new passion led me to the Irish Folk Music section of my beloved Border’s Bookstore and resulted in an extensive collection of Irish Traditional Music cd’s. Over time I bought dozens of cd’s, many filled with ballads rendered in a language that spoke to me, even though I didn’t understand a word of it, and haunting melodies played with fiddles, whistles and the stirring beat of the Irish drum, the bodhran, a name I couldn’t pronounce at the time. As I drove my family crazy with this newfound musical passion, I slowly became connected through music to a land, a people and a culture that I was only slightly connected to by way of genetics.

The rest is history. This blog, my West Clare cottage, my Irish last name – my youngest son – the little Irishman with a name I couldn’t have pronounced even a year before his birth, all exist to some extent because of that one Sinéad O’Connor song and the countless bodhran, fiddle and tin whistle tunes and ballads that followed. I still can’t wear Kelly Green, and Aran Sweaters really do not suit me. But not only do I now feel Irish on St. Patrick’s Day, like the rest of the City of Chicago, I am also connected to Ireland in a way that goes far beyond genetics. And today my two older children, whom I once drove crazy with my Irish Music cd’s, have a bond to Ireland as well!

On February 28th, President Obama declared March, 2013 Irish-American Heritage Month. Perhaps his Moneygall, Ireland DNA is what drove him to do it. Or, his experience visiting that country where he only recently discovered his family connections. Or, maybe it was just good old-fashioned politics where it never hurts to nod to the millions of Americans with Irish blood coursing through their veins! I would say it was probably a combination of all the above. Whatever his reasons, I am sure that most Americans will be happy to heed his call this St. Patrick’s Day!

“… NOW, THEREFORE, I, BARACK OBAMA, President of the United States of America, by virtue of the authority vested in me by the Constitution and the laws of the United States, do hereby proclaim March 2013 as Irish-American Heritage Month. I call upon all Americans to observe this month with appropriate ceremonies, activities, and programs.”

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I’ve started this post with Happy St. Paddy’s Day instead of Happy St. Patrick’s Day, as a nod to the rant my Irish husband has been on all week. Apparently, calling the saint, Paddy, is alright (though, I think Patrick is preferred) – but woe to those Americans, including a certain beer company whose ad decorates a local restaurant, who dare to call Patrick, “Patty”! Patty is a girl’s name you see and not a name you would call any Patrick, let alone the saint Himself!  So to those of you wishing friends, loved ones and nearby strangers a Happy St. Patrick’s Day today, be warned! You may certainly be familiar enough with Patrick to call him Paddy, but should you call him Patty within earshot of Declan, you will suffer the ire of an Irishman who likes his saints’ nicknames to be gender correct!

It is probably fair to say that adding to Declan’s ill-humor is the fact that he has to work today, of all days. During the last several St. Patrick’s Days spent in the U.S. he has lamented that in Ireland the day is a national holiday for which all students and most working people would have the day off to celebrate. Since this year the holiday fell on a Saturday, he might have expected to celebrate a real St. Patrick’s Day! However, his employer apparently didn’t consider ethnicity when drawing up the call roster for the year and Declan was scheduled to work, yet again, on St. Patrick’s Day.

Since we faced the holiday on our own, I had planned to bring my son, Eoin, to the downtown Chicago St. Patrick’s Day Parade.  A combination of the holiday falling on a Saturday coupled with the strangely warm weather we are experiencing made it feel almost like an obligation to attend the parade.

Inside the ‘L’ train today, photo by Anton.
(Not even close to the ‘sardines’ on the Metra!)

However, after watching a sea of Kelly Green humanity being squeezed onto two dangerously packed Metra trains at the Elmhurst train station this morning, I decided it was best to spend the day far from what I am sure will be Mardi Gras level festivities in Chicago. I may instead celebrate St. Patrick’s Day by making a loaf of brown bread to have with tea tonight!

But parade or no parade, the day is lovely and even my husband’s mood is looking up. He has cheerfully informed me that someone, perhaps another indignant Irish person armed with a marker, has changed the “t’s” to “d’s” on the restaurant’s beer ad! It is good to know you are not alone in your indignation!

Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

Beannacht Lá Fhéile Pádraig!

St. Patrick blesses Co. Mayo, photo courtesy news.NationalGeographic.com

Happy St. Patrick’s Day! So far this year, my celebration of St. Patrick’s Day has been to attend the local parade last Saturday with Declan and Eoin – bundled up from head to toe to keep out the cold – and to bake two loaves of Irish Brown Bread, my first ever! One loaf went with Eoin to school for his Culture Project Food Day and the other was just for us. Served with raspberry jam and the deep yellow richness of Kerrygold Pure Irish Butter – and moistened with cupán tae – the brown bread was celebration enough! However, adding to the pleasure of the holiday, I just received the following video in a “Happy St. Patrick’s Day” email from The Francis O’Neill Club of the Irish American Heritage Center. Song for Ireland perfectly conveys my affection for Ireland and this version by Dick Gaughan is particularly soulful. So, in celebration of the day that’s in it, I offer this video for you to enjoy a wonderful song and to feast your eyes on the beauty of the island St. Patrick loved so well! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PInNrFZQEwk&feature In addition, with thoughts directed toward the people of Japan in their struggle with the ongoing devastation in their country, instead of talk of green beer and shamrocks this St. Patrick’s Day, I’ll leave you with the comfort of a small part of  St. Patrick’s Breastplate, a prayer attributed to the saint himself.

Christ be with me, Christ within me,

Christ behind me, Christ before me,

Christ beside me, Christ to win me,

Christ to comfort and restore me.

Christ beneath me, Christ above me,

Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,

Christ in hearts of all that love me,

Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.

St. Patrick’s Day blessings to ye!

In Ireland St. Patrick’s Day is a national holiday when most people have the day off work and the schools are closed. In the U.S. when St. Patrick’s Day falls on a weekday, as it has this year, we must be content to do most of our celebrating on the weekend. Therefore, since most of the celebrating in Chicago is going on today, I decided that I would wish everyone a Happy St. Patrick’s Day, today! I spoke to my son at around 10:30 a.m. and he was already celebrating with some friends at an Irish pub in Chicago, called Fado… which means ‘long ago’ in Irish. Good luck with that Anton… I hope the celebrating does not go on through to tonight! The Chicago St. Patrick’s Day Parade was today, as was the Elmhurst parade, which we missed due to the rain but could still hear from our house. Tonight, I may attend a Ceili Mor at the Irish Heritage Center which promises ceol ‘s craic – music and fun.

I’ve had some great fun celebrating over the years. Many St. Patrick’s Days were spent at the South Side Irish Parade and there were a couple spent in suburban pubs sipping disgusting green beer while wishing there was a vegetarian version of corned beef and cabbage. One particularly memorable St. Patrick’s Day took place many years ago at Irish Eyes Pub on Chicago’s north side with Fred, back when we were dating. We enjoyed some great Irish bands that night and I, in my youthful enthusiasm and amateur status, drank perhaps a beer more than I could handle and ended up with my face laying on the table! Recently, St. Patrick’s Day celebrations have been of a more subdued nature, with Declan and I marching with Eóin and his preschool in the Elmhurst St. Patrick’s Day Parade for a couple years and eventually, just the three of us watching from the sidelines.

In March of 2002, I had the good fortune to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day with the Irish, in Dublin! That year Delcan, Kate and I made the most of an authentic, Irish St. Patrick’s Day by attending as many events as possible. Two days before St. Patrick’s Day, we attended Dublin’s spectacular fire works celebration on the Liffey, surrounded by a crowd that seemed impossibly huge for a country with a population of roughly 4.5 million (6.2 million, if you include Northern Ireland)! On the day itself, March 17th, we made our way to Dame Street in the City Centre for the parade, and stood at the side of that narrow street in a crowd so thick with Irish people, as well as folks from around the world who came to celebrate in the land of St. Patrick, that it was nearly impossible to see the innumerable floats and marching bands passing by. We craned our necks and stood on our toes doing our best to see a bit while we nearly froze that cold, wet day. After about an hour of this, we decided we needed a bit more comfort. I should really say that I needed a bit more comfort, considering Eóin was born a mere 8 weeks later! Fourteen-year-old Kate insisted upon staying to watch, so Declan found a platform for her to stand on so that she could see above the crowd while we slipped in through the door of the pub that stood right behind her. So… there  we sat during St. Patrick’s Day 2002, in a pub on Dame Street, Declan having a beer and me a Club Orange, watching the rest of the parade on the pub telly, as it marched right past Kate and the pub door!

Unfortunately, the weather became increasingly bitter cold and wet that day and forced us to reluctantly miss the post parade festivities in Stephen’s Green where many great Irish bands were scheduled to perform in an outdoor concert. However, that year I felt satisfied to have done my best to make the most of  a truly Irish St. Patrick’s Day.

Here, for your enjoyment, is my idea of a great St. Patrick’s Day celebration… Lá Fhéile Pádraig Sona Duit!

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