Friday, March 14, 2008

St. Patrick's Day: Dying to Wear the Green

St. Patrick's Day, Dublin.

When I was in grade school I wrote a special poem one year for St. Patrick’s Day. I don’t remember it except for this excerpt:

“The green fields of Ireland are frosted with red,
Fear of destruction is what they dread . . . .

Who’s to blame, now that it’s all gone?
No one. Just blame it on the Leprechaun.”

I remember that my teacher was surprised at the seriousness of the poem. He said that he thought it was going to be a happy “Irish Eyes Are Smiling” kind of thing.

Well, this was the seventies, and The Troubles were in full swing. “England Get the Hell Out of Ireland” was a banner that most of the counties carried in the parade and a sentiment my uncles liked to impassionedly repeat the during family parties.

I had a young sense of the serious nature of the Irish situation because my father had sat down one night and written out the words to many of the songs we sang (this being long before easy Internet searches).

One song was “The Wearing of the Green”

"O Paddy dear, an' did ye hear the news that's goin' round?
The shamrock is by law forbid to grow on Irish ground;
St. Patrick's Day no more we'll keep, his colour can't be seen,
For there's a cruel law agin the wearin' o' the Green.

I met with Napper Tandy and he took me by the hand,
And he said, "How's dear old Ireland, and how does she stand?"
She's the most distressful country that ever yet was seen,
For they're hanging men an' women there for the wearin' o' the Green."

That last line haunted me: “For they're hanging men an' women there for the wearin' o' the Green.”

The song is an anonymous street ballad from the days of the Irish Rebellion of 1798. Influenced by the American and French Revolutions, the Society of United Irishmen—which started as a political organization seeking to gain power in Parliament—evolved into a serious revolutionary force under the great Wolfe Tone.

Wearing a shamrock—or any green—was considered an insignia of the rebellion, and you were hanged for high treason. The British so feared the ethnic identity of the Irish that they would murder citizens under their rule for wearing an ethnic color.

Of course these were the days of the crushing tyranny of the Penal Laws, various statues passed over centuries to discriminate against Roman Catholics and try to force the population into the Church of England. One of the earliest was the 14th century Statutes of Kilkenny that criminalized speaking Irish and banned intermarriage between the Irish and the English.

Under the Penal Laws:

* The Catholic Church was forbidden to keep church registers.
* The Irish Catholic was forbidden the exercise of his religion.
* He was forbidden to receive education.
* He was forbidden to enter a profession.
* He was forbidden to hold public office.
* He was forbidden to engage in trade or commerce.
* He was forbidden to live in a corporate town or within five miles thereof.
* He was forbidden to own a horse of greater value than five pounds.
* He was forbidden to own land.
* He was forbidden to lease land.
* He was forbidden to accept a mortgage on land in security for a loan.
* He was forbidden to vote.
* He was forbidden to keep any arms for his protection.
* He was forbidden to hold a life annuity.
* He was forbidden to buy land from a Protestant.
* He was forbidden to receive a gift of land from a Protestant.
* He was forbidden to inherit land from a Protestant.
* He was forbidden to inherit anything from a Protestant.
* He was forbidden to rent any land that was worth more than 30 shillings a year.
* He was forbidden to reap from his land any profit exceeding a third of the rent.
* He could not be guardian to a child.
* He could not, when dying, leave his infant children under Catholic guardianship.
* He could not attend Catholic worship.
* He was compelled by law to attend Protestant worship.
* He could not himself educate his child.
* He could not send his child to a Catholic teacher.
* He could not employ a Catholic teacher to come to his child.
* He could not send his child abroad to receive education.

And to wear green was a capital offense of high treason during the 1789 rebellion. Which is why I don’t mind when the kids paint their faces green for the parade, or Chicago dyes its river or New York its bagels and beer, or someone in San Francisco dyes a dog green. It's all silly, but it honors, in a subtle way, those murdered for trying to keep their ethnic identity so deeply associated with a color.

The hangings still haunt me.

(puppy photo Michael Macor; top photo from Metro. Has other great pictures of green)


kathleenmaher said...

M.A., I'm going to suggest my sister read this post. She was always embarrassed at the idea she shared the same heritage as all the Chicagoans who claim a special day to get drunk and demand that people kiss them. One year my dad bought her a "kelly green" dress that she thought looked very grown up. She wore it on a family outing to the Art Institute and when she saw everyone else wearing green--and then the river!--she was convinced we'd all tricked her

M.A.Peel said...

Kathleen, I can understand your sister's feeling about the day being a bad license to drink heavily (although you have to admit that demanding a kiss is kind of charming).

Some day I must get myself to Chicago to see that green river.

peteski said...

I was head to toe green on the 17th. Of course this is LA so, no one noticed, no one cared. The two that did noticed BOTH asked me if I was Irish.
I miss New York.

M.A.Peel said...

peteski, there was one LA nod to the day. How I Met Your Mother had an actual St. Patrick's Day episode, and the character Barney wore an amazing green suit. It was great.

Phyllis said...

Fascinating....always wondered about that song! And OMG have the English got a lot to answer for. Haven't a drop of Irish blood, but have been there many times.....and there is nowhere like it in the world.

Phyllis said...

sent to my brother.....and here is his response. (my family are converts).

Hi Phyllis: Are you not glad we have some Scottish blood with us to mitigate those murderous English? Our ancestor James came over before Cromwell so we didn't share in the putting down of the Irish. It is hard to believe our more distant Leonard ancestors were indeed all Catholic, but old Henry VIII did make a real mess of things! Love, Bobby

HST Tog said...

Phyllis, you butchered native Americans and slaves on an industrial scale, we were mere amateurs compared to you. Let he who has not sinned cast the first stone

Anonymous said...

Found the song Wearing Of The Green in a old music book. So shocking. Thank you for your so full information. What man does to man is so terribly cruel. We just must learn from the history and not repeat it. Lift and care. As long as you don't have green blood and yellow eyes, you are wanted in this world!
Thank you thank you

Anonymous said...

Thank you for letting me leave a comment. Here is something really fun and so interesting and it can change our lives to hope:
There was a show on PBS put on by Wall to Wall it was all about Science Detectives going around to 5 continents to gather DNA samples from living people plus from fossils. They gathered gene samples from the oldest cultures: Tibet, Australia and the Pygmy of Cameroon. This all started in 2006 and probably is still on going.
What did they find? They found that every person in this world has the very same genes, 3-6% to 6-9% of the very same gene. That is an amazing head scratcher!
No matter what anyone in the world looks like, it's their blood and their bones that tell the story of how they connect. No one is any smaller than anyone else.
Our ancestors traveled with full curiosity, constantly problem solving. Their past is what brought us here. It's man who has decided who to harm. It is our cultures that have pitted us against each other and caused so much pain and suffering. Now we know, very scientifically, that we are all connected. We just have to stop the harm. Stop the fighting. Learn not to ever ever repeat our past history of harm.
Scientists who put this together: The Max Planck Institute in Copenhagen and Leipzig Germany and many more. Please see: Peoples
or Ars Your heart will sing: we DO have hope. Man CAN come togetherThank you and Praise you. You are a true winner with your site!