I had a similar "aha" moment yesterday when I was thinking about what could I write about for St. Patrick's Day.
I was walking from the subway to my office on 52 Street, still feeling jazzed by 30 Rock's St. Patrick's Day episode, with all its loony specific details, and the use of the parade (which was a real inside baseball stroke, because not only has WNBC been televising it for many years, but this year the Grand Marshal is none other than Francis X. Comerford, the Chief Revenue Officer and President of Commercial Operations for the NBC Owned Television Stations).
As I was walking I was thinking . . . thinking . . . what can I talk about, what's big enough to talk about this year, when I looked up to cross the street and . . .
THERE IT WAS, the Bloody Red Hand of O'Neill. On every street corner.*
How had I never realized this before?
I hail from clan O'Neill, and our crest---the elements of which predate formal heraldry--- has a bloody hand that became the symbol of Ulster because my ancestors where kings of ancient Ireland. No hype. No kidding.
There are many stories about why the crest has the hand. The one my dad told me was: One of our ancestors had a kingdom and two sons. He took them out in a boat, and said whichever one touched the land first he would make the next king. The two brothers started swimming, and the one son realized he was losing, so he took his knife, cut off his had and threw it so he would "touch" the land first. As a kid that was deliciously creepy. We had the crest on a wall along the stairs to the living room, and I stared at that fish for years.
We Have a Very Storied Heritage
Here are bits and pieces from name and crest sites:
The name is the same in Irish as it is in English and for 1,000 years O'Neill has been one of the most prestigious of Irish families. Niall means ‘champion’ and was first used by Domhall, grandson of Nial Glun Dubh (black knee), King of Ireland, killed in 890 by the Norsemen. The O'Neills go further back, claiming descent from the legendary Niall of the Nine Hostages. They were very strong in Ulster and to curb their power Queen Elizabeth had their Tullahogue inauguration stone broken up.
The O'Neills were so powerful that they were targeted by the English for extermination with special zeal in the sixteenth century. Despite the best efforts of the crown under their agent Essex, the O'Neills continued to thrive in Ulster right up until the 'Flight of the Earls' in 1607 (more about that later).
The Long Memory of History
In the states, the name O'Neill used to be known for the playwright Eugene and the politician Tip. Both are fading from collective memory.
But I got a whole new perspective on the clan when I traveled around Ireland in college with a fellow American, Carol Delahunty. She wanted to visit her county, Kilkenny. So we made our way there, via Dublin, then Galway, Clare, Dingle, Limerick, Cork, Waterford. All along the way, when I said my name, people would say, "Oh, the fighting O'Neills" or "Ah, the kings of Ireland." Which surprised me. No one said anything about Delahunty.
Then we got to Kilkenny Castle, the seat of her family name, and ticket taker is reading a book, a biography on Owen Roe O'Neill!!
I had to ask him, why do people feel the need to exclaim when I say my name?
He said that it's because the Irish feel very close to their history, and the O'Neills were great fighters against the English and are cherished for it to this day.
And that history? Hugh O'Neill, 2nd Earl of Tyrone, was known as The Great O'Neill and recognized as the King of Ireland as late as 1598 - 1600, gaining power and renown through the Nine Years War, hammering against the English.
But here's the rub. The English rallied at the Battle of Kinsale, the Catholic Spanish, who had come to help, surrendered, and the English took the city. O'Neill went back to Ulster, and then left for Spain to try to raise a new army and re-conqueror, along with O'Donnell and ninety of their followers. This exile became known as "The Flight of the Earls" in 1607.
Because O'Neill and the others left, no one left was strong enough to fight the English, and the Plantation of Ulster began, which was the root of all evil on that green isle. Direct cause and effect. O'Neill and O'Donnell left, King James 1 confiscated their lands, their entire realms, and gave them to Protestants from England and Scotland. That's how the mess all started.
Now, you might think that history and the Irish would hold O'Neill responsible for that terrible fate of their country. But they don't. Exactly the opposite: they embrace O'Neill as the greatest of the fighters who stood firm against the English, well, until he fled. (As we've said repeatedly, the Irish are a unique breed.)
And today, this ancient symbol of the fighting kings of Ireland is on every street corner in the 5 boroughs of the great city of New York.
That's big enough to call out on Saint Patrick's Day and say: Erin Go Bragh!
*(This one has the extra benefit of the pun on the street sign. Who W. C. Handys is and why we care is for another day.)