Saint Pat, Bless His Heart… —by Jinny Batterson
A set of reports from an ancestry DNA service recently confirmed that over half of my ancestors originated in Ireland, England, or some other part of the set of islands off the northern coast of France that its current rulers like to call the “British Isles.” Just which parts of the islands, I cannot say with confidence, nor, apparently, can the DNA service (unless I want to spit into another tube, answer a lot of intrusive questions, and send a heftier fee).
From what I know of the various branches of my family tree, a fair number of my ancestors were of “Scots-Irish Presbyterian” background—at some point before arriving in America, they had lived in northern Ireland, having migrated there from parts of Scotland in hopes of farming better land. At some time in the old country, also, they had deserted Roman Catholicism for Protestantism.
I follow a rather eclectic faith tradition, with a substantial modicum of “live and let live” in its theology. Yet once I ran into a situation in which my ancestors’ creed and country of origin seemed to be important. Many years ago, I was riding in a Jeep driven by an ebullient Irishman whose family name was similar to that of some of my forebears. We were on a weekend excursion to an isolated upland farming station in central Africa, along with several other international development workers. When Mr. Dudley found out that part of my ancestry was Scots-Irish Presbyterian, he commented on my lack of pedigree:
“Ach, your forefathers were renegades,” he lectured me. “They likely fought pitched battles with mine, who did their best to uphold the true faith.” Lucky for me, he forgave my great-great-great-grands their transgressions and did not kick me out of the car. Properly pedigreed or not, I usually sport at least a touch of green when March 17 comes around each year.
One year, when I was half a world from the U.S., teaching English at a school in a frontier outpost near China’s northwestern border, I organized an evening English language program about the Saint Patrick’s Day holiday. It was difficult to get my students to believe that there was an island that stayed permanently green—the little bits of green in our desert oasis town required near-constant irrigation. However, there was a different link of sorts. In preparation for the program, I’d boned up on the history of Irish and Scots-Irish immigration to the United States, which began well before American independence, but peaked during the 1840’s and 1850’s. Over about a decade then, a famine in Ireland wiped out a million people and caused a million more to emigrate, reducing the island nation’s population by 20 to 25 percent. Most of my students had not been directly impacted by famines, but they generally knew stories of parents or grandparents who had, during the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. So there was a tenuous bond with the plight of the Irish, even if few Chinese were accustomed to wearing green, greeting leprechauns, or drinking green beer.
Now that I live in the U.S. South, I’ve been surprised to learn that one of the major Saint Patrick’s Day celebrations in our country takes place in Savannah, Georgia. Second only to the New York City parade, Savannah’s festivities are lubricated by “to go cups” and last for most of the day. According to the travel website moon.com, some of my distant relatives may have had a hand in early Savannah festivities: “ …the first parade in Savannah was organized by Irish Protestants. Thirteen members of the local Hibernian Society—the country’s oldest Irish society—took part in a private procession to Independent Presbyterian Church in 1813.”
In 21st century America, smaller celebrations occur throughout the South, the festivities overshadowed only by “March Madness.” This evening, during halftime of whatever NCAA basketball game we happen to be watching, let us pause and hoist a glass to Saint Pat, bless his heart.