“Sláinte!” to Ireland

Photo by Mark Bergin.
At the 2011 NYC St. Patrick's Day parade

Photo by Mark Bergin.
At the 2011 NYC St. Patrick’s Day parade

You’ve probably seen the phrase “Erin Go Bragh” hanging in a pub somewhere in your travels. It’s the anglicized version of the Irish Éirinn go Brách. The English spelling is meaningless. The Irish Gaelic phrase Éirinn go Brách roughly means “Ireland Forever”.
The term Gaelic is a vague descriptor. Irish is one of several forms of Gaelic. Others include Welsh, Scottish, Manx, Breton and Cornish. A person speaking Irish won’t understand a person speaking Welsh any more than a person speaking English would understand someone speaking Spanish.

Even in Ireland there are several distinct dialects that are far more divergent than the English spoken by a person from Mississippi and one from Australia.

March 17 is a day to celebrate the Irish and Irishness. There are many ways to do this. New York City drapes itself in green. Seriously. Even the solid traffic line in the middle of the pavement on Fifth Avenue is painted green for the day. The city’s St. Patrick’s Day parade, which starts at 11 a.m. and doesn’t finish until 4:30 or 5 p.m., draws hundreds of thousands of visitors. Many schools close (officially or otherwise), so students can either participate or watch.

What exactly are we thankful for in our celebrations?

Look at some of the Irish influences in the arts and cultural world. Hollywood and Broadway are full of them. Think of Liam Neeson, Saoirse Ronan and Colin Farrell. Movies like The Commitments, Michael Collins and the Boys and Girl from County Clare come to mind.
Actors not born in Ireland but of Irish descent include Anne Hathaway, Rooney Mara, Jennifer Connelly, George Clooney, Matthew McConaughey, Bing Crosby, Jackie Gleason, Marlon Brando and James Earl Jones, to name a few. The last name on that list may make you raise your eyebrows, but the wonderful actor’s background is African, Irish and Native American.

One of the most significant entertainers of Irish heritage was George M. Cohan. There’s a statue honoring him in Times Square at the corner of Broadway and 46th. He was a playwright, composer, actor, singer, dancer and producer who had a huge impact on theatre. He’s considered the father of the American musical comedy. A Tin Pan Alley songwriter, one of his most famous tunes is Give My Regards to Broadway.

As for writers, Irish culture offers the quirkiest of the quirky, for example, Anne McCaffrey, James Joyce, Oscar Wilde, Brendan Behan, Lady Gregory, George Bernard Show, Frank McCourt, William Butler Yeats, Mary Louise Fitzpatrick and Jonathan Swift. Irish writers won the Nobel Prize for Literature on three occasions in the 20th century.
Musically, how about the likes of Rory Gallagher, Shane MacGowan, Tommy Makem and the Clancy Brothers, Eithne Ní Bhraonáin (know by the phoneticized version, Enya Brennan, or simply Enya), Imelda May, U2, Sinead O’Connor, Van Morrison and the Chieftains.

Then there’s Irish humour, which brings to mind one of my favourite Irish jokes, told by a friend from Swords, north of Dublin:
Question: How do you spell pretentious in Irish?
Answer: U2.

Maybe you have to be Irish to appreciate that one. Let’s sum it up with a phrase to describe someone who shows off or thinks too highly of him/herself. That person would be called a Mickey Dazzle. “Well look at hisself. Isn’t he the real Mickey Dazzle!”

Many Irish have mixed feelings about U2, the band that has been accused of tax avoidance for basing their operations outside their homeland. As their manager puts it, “Like any other business, U2 operates in a tax-efficient manner.” Which is what the Irish might less-than-affectionately call tripe from a tosser.

My favorite Irish metaphor came from my grandmother: “You’re runnin’ around like a blue-tail fly on a horse’s arse.” Pretty descriptive. Easy to understand. Not much room for confusion regarding the intended meaning.

Our English language is full of Irish smatterings. A book called Green English outlines how Irish has infiltrated the language. For example, the word “galore” hails from the Irish “go leor”, meaning enough or plenty.

As for the world of science, who but the Irish could transform the potato? The inventor of flavoured potato chips was an Irishman named Joseph Murphy, who, in 1954, was the first person to flavour the snack food. He added cheese and onion flavouring. He made a fortune when he sold his seasoning technology to an American company. The rest is atherosclerotic history.

How about soda water? Another Irish invention courtesy of Robert Percival, a professor at Trinity College in Dublin.

John Phillip Holland from County Clare developed the first submarine used by the US Navy in 1900.

Irish scientist John Joly created the process for creating colour photographs from a single plate image in 1894.

A County Down bicycle repair lad named Harry Ferguson invented the modern tractor. Indeed, he’s the Ferguson from Massey Ferguson.

Irishman Robert Boyle developed the foundations of modern chemistry.

Close to home, there’s the Rideau Canal, built on the backs of the Irish, Scottish and French.

Any business that wants to paint itself Irish uses any number of names associated with Ireland.

‘Tis Eire apparent (to steal from Shakespeare) that the phrase Tír na nÓg is used around the world for restaurants, pubs, Irish dance schools and just about anything else that wants to take on an aura of Ireland. That’s the proper spelling, although it is sometimes misspelled Tir Nan Og. The phrase means “land of the young” or “land of youth”. Tír na nÓg is an Otherworld in Irish mythological beliefs. The only way to reach it is through a challenging journey or by invitation from the fairies.

Speaking of pubs, as for the racist stereotype of the Irish drunk, according to World Health Organization data (2002 and 2004), in general, those in the European Union do consume more alcohol than we do in North America. But Ireland lags behind even the Czech Republic and Hungary in alcohol consumption, and there are more abstainers in Ireland than in many other countries, including the likes of Austria, England, France, Sweden and Norway. In alcohol-related mortality, Ireland is tied with Scotland.

So I wish you all “Sláinte!” (pronounced SLAHN-chuh. It’s used as “cheers”, but its English translation means “health”) for March 17.

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About Mark Aidan Bergin

Writer, editor, photographic artist specializing in dance, theater, concert, fashion and street photography....sometimes musician. Explorer of arts, culture and world, and all things Celtic and Gotham. On a good day, or perhaps a bad day, simply a mad (FOOBAR, not angry) scientist.
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