There I was at my grandmothers house on the day of my grandfathers funeral. All of the relatives were gathered in the parlor, and the food each had brought for the occasion was arranged on the dining room table. My uncles greeted each guest and showed the men where the liquor was being laid out; and most were imbibing in order to be proper.
The oldest son stood, cleared his throat, and gave a history of the deceased that began with the old mans first ancestor in America. Almost without thinking, he then reached for the old mans banjo, while others retrieved their own instruments from automobiles and nearby houses. In a few moments, the family was celebrating the patriarchs life with song and music.
In that moment, at the age of 15, I became fully aware of the fact that I was taking part in an Irish wake. We have been in Georgia, in the 20th century, and living American lives, but on that day an element of our Irish heritage seeped through. It wasnt the last time that I would notice the Irish blood coming to the surface. It registered in the food my mother served, in the love of my father for land and property, and in certain traditions and folklore that were abundant in my Southern upbringing.
I became quite proud of that Irish ancestor of mine, and have spent the last 28 years nurturing a knowledge and respect for Irish culture, folklore and history.
But the truth is that the history of Ireland has been entwined with the history of Georgia and the Southern United States. One has only to think of the first settlers of this region, of who they were, to realize that a large portion of them were undoubtedly Irish. After all, the king of England did not have many loyal British subjects locked up at the time. Many of these refugees from British law became the settlers who came to the new colonies and turned them into a nation.
With a love for land, it was only natural for them to flock to the Southern, rural states. Georgia and South Carolina became the recipients of these hard-working and steadfast people.
It was no coincidence that the heroine of Margaret Mitchells Gone With the Wind was Katie Scarlett OHara. One of the more memorable moments in the movie comes when Scarletts father admonishes her for her apathetic feelings: Do you mean to tell me, Katie Scarlett OHara, that Tara, that land doesnt mean anything to you? Why, land is the only thing in the world worth workin for, worth fightin for, worth dyin for, because its the only thing that lasts.
The resourceful and dynamic work of the Irish immigrant is witnessed all around us every day, but we fail to think of it. Every time I hear the train in Martinez, I cannot help but think of the rugged Irish workers who helped to lay the original tracks. A drive along the River Watch Parkway and a view of the Savannah River brings the thought of Irish and Scot workers on the docks in the early days of river traffic. The cotton mills and Powderworks downtown bring similar thoughts.
Is it any wonder that St. Patricks Day floods the streets of downtown Augusta with cheerful crowds? However, not everyone participating on the Riverwalk is named Bryant, Sullivan or Mulherin. It makes one wonder why people of such diverse ethnic backgrounds take such an enthusiastic interest in what is intended as an Irish holiday. The answer lies in a common spiritual thread that runs through all of us.
The touted spirit of the Irish people is one shared by all Americans, by all who grasp the meaning of individual freedom. That spirit is one that embraces life to the fullest; which seeks out and rejoices in the robust and varied life of the pioneer.
On another level, I think, we all recognize that St. Patricks Day is a commemoration of all those who came before us from across vast oceans of strife and hardship to establish a new land, a new nation. It is a celebration of the immigrant - that rugged individual who was willing to risk it all for one chance at a free and unfettered life.
St. Patricks Day is our way of recognizing in song, food, and dance the contributions made by generations of the worlds castaways who became vindicated by the bright green homeland they helped to create.
Erin go Bragh!
(Dennis Jones is a Martinez resident.)
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