Sunday, August 17, 1997

Celtic Fringe

The Celts are going, the Celts are going at last. Hurrah! Soon a Celt on the streets of Dublin will be as rare as seeing an Indian on the streets of Manhattan.—British Government, ca. 1847.

IN my family we eat soda bread with tea, croon Irish songs when the uisge beatha whets our pipes: it helps us reach that 2nd octave in Danny Boy. My grandmother never let us forget our history: the millions dead from the Famine Years. A dirge for the dying: Oh the praties they grow small. . . My great-grand-father raised fast horses, drove them with the cattle between bonfires at Lugnasadh. My family is of the earth, they survived because they held onto the land, the farms: at Coomb an-nOir, the Hill-of-Gold Walshes, and the one-eyed Sullivans of Bantry; the Reillys and Duffys of Long Kesh, Fihora. My ancestors survived by eating the blackened potatoes, cow fodder, and wild grasses. Then, when that was gone, they sucked stones, swallowed dirt, buried their dead and dreamed of another country to the west: Tír na-nÓg.

Lord Russell said the famine is good, teach the Irish a lesson. Ships laden with Irish cattle and grain sailed for Britain while we died with grass stains on our teeth. Béal na blát: from the mouth of flowers I came. In America, the Cherokee Nation collected $200; they sent us cargoes of maize and beans. Too late. “Coffin ships to the Americas. Slavers to the cane fields and estates of the Barbados,” she said. From the Celtic Fringe to the Celtic Diaspora; countless children sold in the West Indies, destined to enter the bloodlines of Africa. A Black woman asks why she never learned this in school. I tell her we share the same Anglo roots of history. She said, “I had an Irish grandmother,” we joke about being black Irish.

I’m allergic to the new world foods: beans, corn and potatoes. They say there was enough food in Ireland to feed 20 million. Instead we fed the enemy with our bones. Their sheep replaced us. But we survived. Sínn Fein: Ourselves, alone, she said, Never forget. Use their language against them, she said. This, my inheritance. Sláinte Gael macushla mo chroidhe. I’ve kissed the Blarney Stone, though there was little need. The cats form semi-colons at the foot of the bed: what was the lesson were we supposed to have learned? The Irish nation scattered to the winds. Full glottal stop.

© 1997 , rev 2000 Maureen Hurley

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