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The Improbable Spirit of the Irish

March 16, 1986|Zan Thompson

On the gray day that Audrey Ann Marie Boyle and I climbed the path to the world's edge along the Cliffs of Moher, we had to hold on to each other to keep from being blown into the sea. It's a stark sight, these cliffs in County Clare, looking as if a giant with a great ax had chopped off the edge of the land.

Really, the tall, straight cliffs are the work of the dark Atlantic, hurling itself at the west of Ireland ever since God finished making it.

At the top of the mountain is an ancient edifice called O'Brien's Tower. My grandmother's name was Bridget O'Brien and it was some of her ancestors who built this stark rock bastion against the weather and their enemies, and they had plenty of both.

You might have thought that the young Irish priest newly arrived in the United States was speaking of my grandmother's people instead of my grandfather's when he came making a parish call one day. When my mother told the young man our name, Joyce, from the town of Clifden in Joyce's Country in County Galway, mother said he almost fell off the porch, he backed away so quickly.

"They're terrible people," whispered the young man as if a Joyce shade might be listening. "They throw their enemies into the sea."

Actually, Daddy said that wasn't true at all. No one ever got up the hill to be thrown off because the Joyces rolled giant rocks down the mountain to discourage the assailants. The rocks must have worked. The Joyces are the only people who never took an oath of allegiance to an English monarch, in spite of the fact that they were latecomers, arriving in Ireland with William the Conqueror. These Normans "became more Irish than the Irish," following the still valid folk wisdom that the convert becomes more zealous than the cradle born.

Galway City, the largest town near Clifden, held out against both Charles I and Parliament. Oliver Cromwell didn't even try. He never set foot nor did any of his Roundheads on the rocky coast of the west.

The high-flown claims of the western Irish are not really arrogance, nor are any of the claims of the rest of Ireland. They were defenses of pride thrown up against centuries of subjugation. The Irish took pride in their gift of words and their music, and in their gift of wry laughter, often all they had to hold around their shoulders in the teeth of the wind. Cold comfort, sometimes, but comfort where there was none other.

I have a young friend named Kathleen Lubanski, whom I envy. She and her young man will be going to Ireland this year for the first time. She will see the "hundred shades of green," see a small gray burro and her baby leaning against a tree in a field of clover, see a flock of sheep filling the road. I treasure a sign I saw at a railroad crossing, "Large herds of cattle will call ahead before continuing."

I can imagine the head matron turning around to the herd and saying, "All right, ladies, who has telephone change?"

Kathleen will see Ashford Castle with the swans and cygnets floating grandly along the arm of the bay where the castle stands. As the evening falls, Kathy and her young man will sit in the lounge by the window looking across Galway Bay, while a gentleman plays soft show tunes. It's the only place in Ireland where they make a proper martini, cold as a glacier and with just the whisper of vermouth. There's a restaurant called Ty-Ar-Mor on a tip of land at the edge of Galway Town where you can sit and watch the sun go down on Galway Bay. It's a rare moment.

A restaurant called Flanagan's in New York has this bit of dramatic history printed on its menus:

In the Young Irish disorders, in Ireland in 1848, the following nine men were captured, tried and convicted of treason against her majesty, the queen, and were sentenced to death: John Mitchell, Morris Lyene, Pat Donahue, Thomas McGee, Charles Duffy, Thomas Meagher, Richard O'Gorman, Terrence McManus, Michael Ireland.

Before passing sentence, the judge asked if there was anything that anyone wished to say. Meagher, speaking for all, said:

"My lord, this is our first offense but not our last. If you will be easy with us this once, we promise, on our word as gentlemen, to try and do better next time. And next time--sure we won't be fools to get caught."

Thereupon the indignant judge sentenced them all to be hanged by the neck until dead and drawn and quartered. Passionate protests from all over the world forced Queen Victoria to commute the sentence to transportation for life to far wild Australia.

In 1874 word reached the astounded Queen Victoria that the Sir Charles Duffy who had been elected prime minister of Australia was the same Charles Duffy who had been transported 25 years before. On the queen's demand, the records of the rest of the transported men were revealed and this is what was uncovered:

Thomas Francis Meagher, governor of Montana.

Terrence McManus, brigadier general, United States Army.

Patrick Donahue, brigadier general, United States Army.

Richard O'Gorman, governor general of Newfoundland.

Morris Lyene, attorney general of Australia in which office Michael Ireland succeeded him.

Thomas D'Arcy McGee, member of Parliament, Montreal, minister of agriculture and president of Council Dominion of Canada.

John Mitchell, prominent New York politician. This man was the father of John Purroy Mitchell, mayor of New York at the outbreak of World War I.

That simply proves again what my father has said, "Ireland is the country in which the probable never happens and the impossible always does."

May you have a fine day Monday and the blessings of good St. Patrick be upon us all.

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