By John Gray
March is here, which means it’s a good month if you like the color green or happen to be Irish. Although let’s be honest, even those who aren’t Irish seem to enjoy putting on orange hair and dancing the jig on the 17th. I know it’s all in good fun but for people who grew up in a true Irish household you can’t help but roll your eyes. Let me explain.
I was raised in Troy’s south end which in the 60s was a true melting pot. My neighbors were Italian, Polish, Jewish and lots and lots of Irish. Last names like Reilly, Conway, and McNulty could be found on mailboxes dotting the streets. Having the last name Gray you’d assume I was English but I’m all Irish right down to my socks. My grandparents’ names were Gray, Houlihan, O’Shea and Gavin, and our roots go directly back to the emerald isle. Put another way, when the band U2 sings about “Sunday, Bloody Sunday,” some of my ancestors stir in their graves.
When I was a child, the only music you heard coming from my parents’ stereo was The Clancy Brothers. My dad even played harmonica with a man who was born in Ireland, Vince Colgan, and the two of them entertained at various clubs in the region. It was for fun, not money, more of a celebration of our Irish heritage. I know some of you think all Irish music sounds the same but if you sit and listen it really doesn’t. I highly recommend you go to an Irish pub on any day OTHER THAN St. Patrick’s Day (what we real Irish call amateur night) and give it a try. Trust me, you haven’t had fun until you’ve tapped your feet to “Finnegan’s Wake” or raised a pint to “The Parting Glass”. Some of you may be thinking, “Hey isn’t that the name of a bar in Saratoga?” Yes it is and now you where they got the name.
Speaking of origins, do you know the history of St. Patrick’s Day? Believe it or not it was not invented by The Party Warehouse and Budweiser although they certainly benefit from its existence. No, it traces back to the 5th century and a Christian missionary named Patrick. When he was just a teenage boy in Great Britain, Patrick was kidnapped and taken as a slave to Ireland. While in captivity Patrick found God and became a priest. He eventually returned to Ireland and was a kind of Joel Osteen of his day, preaching the good word and steering lost souls toward Christianity. People like to say he drove all the snakes out of Ireland but the truth is they didn’t have any snakes. Castles yes, snakes no. I think that whole snake thing is what your 9th grade English teacher would have called a metaphor.
Anyway, as the story goes, Patrick would use the three leaves of the shamrock to teach the Holy Trinity to people in Ireland and bring them closer to God. I mention this so the next time you’re at a St. Patrick’s Day party and see someone with shamrock stickers on their face making a run for the toilet because they drank too much, you’ll know somewhere in heaven St. Patrick is saying, “Oy Vey.” Yes, I know that’s Yiddish but it works in any language.
I’m not a stick in the mud and I know the whole St. Patrick’s Day celebration has become very secular and celebratory. That’s fine. Have a blast. Just go easy on the stereotyping of Irish people always being drunk or this insistence that they all talk like leprechauns. If you ever have the pleasure of speaking to someone from Ireland with a true Irish brogue, you’ll fall in love with the music and cadence of it.
I’ve never been to Ireland but it’s certainly on my bucket list. Before my mom died she took a trip there with my sister and I remember her glowing as she told me about her hotel on Galway Bay. She said she could hear the ocean right outside her window, the waves singing her to sleep. If there’s a heaven, and I believe there is, I think my mom’s room has a view of that bay.
One last thing. In my home, there hangs a framed photo of a pretty bridge I once saw at a festival and purchased on the spot. It was years later I learned it was the Ha’penny Bridge in Dublin. If you look closely, you’ll see locks attached to it. Couples place them there and throw away the key as a sign that their love is unbreakable. Of all the vendors I passed by that day at the festival and all the photos I saw, that was the one that caught my eye. Makes you wonder if my mom or perhaps even St. Patrick himself was giving me a nudge. Sláinte.
John Gray is weekly columnist for the Troy Record and the Saratogian newspapers and news anchor at ABC 10 and FOX 23. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.