Jim O'Leary

Waverly Star

By Jim O'Leary

An e-mail newsletter for and about Waverly people, used with permission in the HLW Herald and on this web site.

March 11, 2002

One time near St. Patrick's Day, I was at the lumberyard with my father when a customer came in and said, "Why weren't you at the party, Ed? Aren't you really Irish?"

Father Morgan was nearby using my father's circular saw while he was making some music stands for the choir loft, and he said, "That's why he wasn't there. He really is Irish."

My father and mother never talked about Ireland. They knew their parents came from Ireland and never looked back. They kissed the ground of America when they arrived.

I was never reared in an Irish ghetto. In South Dakota, my parents didn't have any Irish friends that I knew of. Waverly was not an Irish ghetto. Waverly was just the way I liked it. I wouldn't trade the Kuchenmeisters or the Gagnons or the Brolls or the Petersons for all the Ryans and Kellys in the world. (Well, maybe for Meg Ryan or Grace Kelly.)

But six months ago, John and Catherine Althoff were in Ireland when the WTC and Pentagon attack came. They were "stranded" in Ireland for days.

John told me that, from their hotel room in Dublin, they could see the people of Ireland lined up all night long and all day long to sign a sympathy book at the American Embassy in Dublin.

Six months ago, this letter of condolence from Ireland came from Dennis Brazil, a reporter for The Irish Times in Dublin. Since my four grandparents came from Ireland, I know firsthand what the author of this letter meant when he said America had provided a haven for the Irish and the Irish have never forgotten.

All American tourists in Ireland, whether they are Irish or not, feel the love for America and for Americans everywhere they go. Perhaps there are other nations who hate us, but the Irish love us. This letter tells it better than I can.

"I live in a tiny community on the outskirts of Cork City in the Republic of Ireland. I have just attended a special Mass to commemorate those who died in the tragic events in the US in the past week. Our church was packed to capacity; our community young and old turned out to share our sorrow, and our hopes for the future of our close friends, the United States.

"Our country today has come to a halt. Everything is closed, so that we can remember and mourn those we saw die at the hands of terrorism.

"The horror we shared with you as we watched it unfold on television, we will not forget, but on the anniversary, as we were told today, of the Triumph of the Cross, could it be that from this horrific period in our lives, we will triumph over evil and terrorism.

"There is probably nobody in Ireland who has not been touched in some way by these killings - that can be witnessed in the mile-long queues outside the US Embassy and other points around the country where books of condolences have been opened.

"We all know somebody who has been affected. To us, New York in particular is part of Ireland, a haven for Irish in the past when we were to emigrate. The United States has remained a wonderful supporter of Ireland, from President Kennedy to the heroic efforts of our adopted son, Bill Clinton, and now our prayers are for your new president. Our thoughts go out to all in the US today.

"As a journalist, I have over the years covered many major international incidents, but to me, the past week has been utter horror. I was not alive for the Hitler period, but it is clear that there is a new Hitler who can only be defeated by a united effort of all of us. Peace, unfortunately, has a price.

"Thousands of people paid that price this week in your country. The US and its friends will chase down this deadly evil terror group, and in the end, we, peace lovers, will win and the world will be a better place. That is probably the best we can offer to those who have lost loved ones this week."

- D. Brazil, Ireland

Add this bit of evidence that the Irish love us: If you watched the fantastically entertaining opening ceremony for the Winter Olympics from Salt Lake City, you might have seen the parade of 87 nations into the stadium. When the Irish delegation of Olympic athletes walked in waving their flags, their flags were all American flags.

"Black Hawk Down" ends with Thomas Moore's Irish classic, The Minstrel Boy.

"One sword at least thy rights shall guard, one faithful harp shall praise thee." Now I would like to be the harp.

An Irish blessing

"May those that loves us, love us, And those that don't love us, May God turn their hearts;

And if He doesn't turn their hearts, may He turn their ankles so we'll know them by their limping."

- Anonymous

There are plenty of myths about the Irish, among which are the following:

1. All Irish are Catholics.

False. While the Republic of Ireland is overwhelmingly Catholic, more than 50 percent of the Irish living in America are Protestants. They are just as proud of their Irish heritage as Irish Catholics are. In Ireland, Protestants and Catholics have no animosity towards each other at all.

When a Methodist church burned down, the Catholics helped them build a new one in a town I visited.

The very flag of the Republic of Ireland is green, white, and orange to symbolize the togetherness of Protestants and Catholics, and the tolerance accorded each other. It is in Northern Ireland, part of England, where there is conflict. It is annoying to the Irish that many Americans don't know the difference between Ireland and Ulster.

There is a good book out now called "Goodbye to Catholic Ireland" by Mary Kenny, who says "The purpose of this book is to try to describe, explain, and interpret the culture of Ireland as it has been for most of the 20th century. It is now a culture that is changing and going, though deposits of it will remain. Spirituality, which has been a characteristic of the Irish people (north and south), will almost certainly remain, and perhaps, revive. But Catholic Ireland, as we have known it, has dissolved."

2. The Irish are all drunkards.

False. One of my friends who just came back from visiting his cousins in Galway reported that all he was offered the whole time was orange soda.

Ireland, as a nation, has the lowest rate of alcohol consumption in Europe. When Governor Ventura joked about the streets of St. Paul being haphazard because of drunken Irish engineering on the David Letterman Show, Father Kevin McDonough, whom has been a frequent visitor to Waverly, said of that incident, "Part of being Irish is to learn not to take yourself too seriously. I wasn't terribly offended by the remark. If they couldn't make fun of our drinking, they couldn't make fun of us at all."

3. The Irish are quick witted spendthrifts, always full of wit.

False. Galway has the highest rate of clinical depression in the world. Many Irish men are silent brooders and many observers, such as myself, think they are more thrifty than the Scots, but here is a difference: The Irish have spread it around the whole world that Scots are stingy, and the Scots don't have the forum to refute the lie.

The truth is that the people of Scotland have generously exported their whiskey all over the world, while the Irish have kept their whiskey to themselves. There are 51 distilleries in Scotland, all competing to manufacture the best tasting single malt Scotch. The Irish won't tell what they have.

4. The Irish are great dancers.

False. The Americans, not the Irish, are the great dancers. They are the ones who have put Irish step-dancing on the map. I myself know a young lady step-dancer who is American as apple pie, and I have known her since she was born. She is now 17 and lives in Oregon. She has never been to Ireland.

This is what she wrote as part of her family's Christmas letter this year:

"As my feet came down for the first stamp, familiar chills sped down my back. I looked across at Angie and we exchanged a wink. Now, the last stamp before the turn, I was facing the crowd.

"The early summer sunset in my eyes did not obscure the five thousand people in front of me. The whistles and fiddles leapt with our steps, the Irish music of the world famous Chieftains.

"Every Irish dancer dreams of joining Riverdance or Lord of the Dance, but I was doing something just as impressive. After years of two hours a day practicing, I was dancing with the biggest name in Irish music. This was my moment.

"I had started dance classes at age nine, learning one-two-threes and sevens on hot summer nights in a Catholic school basement. I practiced at home on the wooden front porch, using the plate glass windows as mirrors to mark my progress.

"Soon, I was the tiniest regular at every competition and performance. St. Patrick's Day season, each year, is packed with up at six 'home at midnight' days of shows. I have danced at everything from outdoor Celtic festivals to daschund dog shows with howls as background music. My troupe has gone from one nursing home to the next, and shared stages with the Oregon Symphony and Toni Tenille.

"Each show is different, ruled by Murphy's Law. Something always goes awry. I have been to shows in the middle of nowhere with only two dancers, because everyone else got lost. Through it all, I keep dancing.

"Versatility is quickly learned. Sometimes the only room I have to dance in is the two-foot wide space between bar stools. It takes grace and poise to get on the stage as a substitute and smile through a whole dance I have never done.

"I want to dance at the World Championships of Irish Dancing in Ireland. Competition is fierce in Irish dancing and I have yearned to share the elite company of the top competitors. All my high school years have been dominated by memories of practice. More than once, friends have asked me why I put so much time into dance (that "Riverdance stuff") I cannot find words for my answer.

"As the stars come out over the Chieftains show, I grin at the audience in front of me. I was born to dance. 'Worlds' will come soon enough. For now I fly to the music of the Chieftains."

Side note: I have just received word that this remarkable young woman, Elizabeth Gallagher, who is likely to be her class valedictorian, has won her competition and will have a free trip to Ireland, where she will take part in the Irish equivalent of the World Olympics - Irish dancing!

This news, for some reason, set me to weeping. I still think of her as a little kid. The remarkable thing about Elizabeth is that she thought she had lost, and was gracious and resigned about it and kept on dancing. The winner dropped out and Elizabeth got the unexpected call.

She will be going to World Championship of Irish Dance in Scotland in March, accompanied by her mother, Susan, who, by the way, has a black belt in karate, along with her son, Colin. No Irish dancing

there . . .

When it comes to the dance, my own regret is the same as Yeats': "Oh to have been three score and

10 . . . and never to have danced for joy!" Since moving to Texas and learning to dance to "Cotton Eyed Joe," I am consoled to know that it is from an Irish melody and the Chieftains play it for us whenever they come to Texas.

Looking at the Irish as an American, I like what I see. I see a people who not only can laugh at themselves, but even deride themselves like no other people.

I see a tolerant people, whether they are in Ireland or living in America. They believe in "live and let live."

In Ireland, Clinton's sex life was not even remotely an issue for them. To the Irish, Clinton took political risks for them like no other president had ever dared, and they won't soon forget it.

He understood immediately what the situation was in Northern Ireland and did something about it. He saw that Northern Ireland was like living in a country run by the Ku Klux Klan, only in this case, Catholics were the blacks.

But author Mary Gordon says it better than me: "The English told them they couldn't read (It was against the law, you know, just like it was for African slaves in the US) and they produced some of the best literature in the English language.

"Their religion was outlawed, and it became the strongest Catholic church in the world. A whole population was wiped out by famine and they came here to America with no skills, no money, and no family, and prospered beyond anyone's expectations . . . the people who managed to laugh and sing in the New York slums were the same people who danced in their rags in the Irish villages and shared a cup of water as if it had been champagne . . .

"They had the faith of the very poor, with the defiant and rowdy gaiety of people who are born, wed, and die in overcrowded rooms. They didn't worry about the future or about respectability. To them what was important was generosity, loyalty, and great story telling of heroes and brave deeds."

So, I guess I am not really Irish at all, unlike my father, who really was. He proved it by keeping his mouth shut about it.

Jim O'Leary

P.S. "And may the wind at your back never be your own." Slainte!


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