Of Blarney, Snakes, Shamrocks and Green Beer
The 17th of March is officially known as the Feast of St. Patrick, although we call it ‘St. Patrick’s Day’. It’s a cultural (and, in some places, religious) holiday dedicated to the patron saint of Ireland. St. Patrick (who died on March 17, 462) is often credited with bringing Christianity to Ireland (it’s said he used a shamrock to explain the ‘Holy Trinity’ [Father, Son, Holy Spirit] to the Irish people). And while we know that people started wearing green on St. Patrick’s Day in the late 17th century, there doesn’t seem to be any record of when (or why) they began drinking green beer (although it is something that is only done on this side of the Atlantic and it’s fairly recent). It’s also unclear why – like Santa Claus at Christmas and the Easter Bunny at Easter – the Leprechaun has been accepted as the symbol of what was originally a Christian celebration.
One of the more well known ‘myths’ surrounding St. Patrick is that he drove all the snakes out of Ireland (by chasing them into the sea after they attacked him while he was undergoing a 40-day fast on top of a hill), although it’s since been established that were no snakes in Ireland in the fifth century. (A recent interpretation of the legend is that the ‘serpents’ St. Patrick drove out were actually the Druids – who had snakes tattooed on their forearms.)
Another ‘legend’ of Ireland (albeit one not associated with St. Patrick) is that of the Blarney Stone – a block of bluestone (the same material used to build Stonehenge) that, when kissed, imparts upon an individual the ‘ability to deceive without offending’ (although many sources suggest that it provides one with the ability to speak with ‘wit, flattery, and great eloquence’ – I suppose how you interpret what it is supposed to do is one that is open to discussion – I mean no disrespect; I have merely quoted an ancient interpretation here). Millions of people travel to Blarney Castle in southwest Ireland every year to give it a try (the idea of placing your lips against a stone that millions of other people have kissed is a little disgusting, if you ask me, but I suppose some people will do anything if they think it will allow to exaggerate or speak beyond the truth with impunity).
There’s strong Irish on my mother’s side of the family (her grandparents came from Ireland during the 1879 Irish Famine), so St. Patrick is the closest I have to a ‘patron saint’ (although I wouldn’t categorize myself as a Christian, so I’m not sure it counts; still, I have been known to occasionally drink green beer on the 17th of March).
My grandmother was born in Canada (in 1886); she had the fair complexion and red hair of an Irishwoman (my mother’s hair was dark, but her younger brother’s was reddish). Of the five children in my family, only one (my older sister) inherited my grandmother’s hair colouring (the ‘in joke’ in our family was always who would produce a ‘little red-headed grandbaby’ for my mother; no one did. Interestingly enough, both my boys are in long term relationships with redheads, so it could very well be that I’ll be the one to bounce a redheaded grandbaby on my knee someday).
When I was little and St. Patrick’s Day came around, my mother would say to us, “You’re as Irish as Paddy’s pig.” I never quite understood this phrase (Who was Paddy? Why would I want to be like his pig?). She would also accuse us of “being full of Blarney” (although I always thought the saying was, “full of baloney” – I did love my bologna sandwiches when I was young) if she caught us telling a story that was clearly an ‘enhanced version of the truth’ – this despite the fact that Mom had clearly “kissed the Blarney Stone” a time or two herself.
I grew up believing that it was wrong to tell a lie. I still have a hard time ‘stretching the truth’. It’s just not in me to twist facts to suit my own purposes. I often have strong opinions and I usually express them without mangling them into some version of the truth that other people might prefer to hear. In that way, I’m more like my father (who made a lot of enemies by telling ‘the truth as he saw it’) than my mother (who believed it was better to tell people ‘what they want to hear’ rather than ‘the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth’). (And for those of you reading this who have been advised that nothing written here is true, I would put forward the assertion that each person’s individual ‘truth’ is their own – unless you’ve lived my life – beginning to now – you have no idea what is true for me or not!)
The fundamental problem with my mother’s approach (as I’ve learned ‘the hard way’) is that by ‘dressing up’ the facts, telling various half-truths and exaggerating here and there instead of ‘telling it like it is’, no one ever knew what she was really thinking (or how much of what she was saying was, in fact, ‘true’). We always believed that she trusted our choices, agreed with our beliefs, supported our decisions. In fact, oftentimes she didn’t. And since she wouldn’t say it straight out (to our faces), she’d often ‘share’ her concerns with other family members behind our backs (always stressing how important it was that we keep her ‘worries’ confidential). She meant well, no question about it (she was a wonderful woman with a heart of gold and I loved her dearly), but by hiding her true feelings and thoughts, we gradually all became co-conspirators in an elaborate web of (unintentional) deception that caused more problems than it solved.
She was so good at saying only what she thought people wanted to hear – and so afraid that telling the ‘whole truth’ would ‘worry’ us – that when she began exhibiting early signs of dementia, none of us recognized it (after her death, I came across a letter she wrote in 2003 that clearly shows she was exhibiting signs of serious memory loss; she hid it well). I’d listen to the stories she’d repeat over and over and believe she just ‘getting things off her chest’. I passed off her ‘memory lapses’ as proof that her hearing aids weren’t working or she wasn’t paying a whole lot of attention to what I was saying or it wasn’t ‘a big deal’ (because that’s what she’d claim). I paid little heed to her complaints about people not visiting or taking her out for lunch or shopping (since I knew who was visiting when and that she refused to go out unless it was my brother – whom she was living with – who took her), because I knew that what she was saying wasn’t an accurate representation of the facts (and I didn’t ‘call her’ on it because it didn’t seem worth arguing about – she’d just deny it because she didn’t want to ‘worry’ anyone).
Unfortunately, there were others (those who didn’t visit often or who chose to ignore the obvious ‘truths’ right in front of them) who took what Mom was saying at face value; it didn’t take long for suspicion, mistrust and a kind of misguided ‘concern’ to develop. They couldn’t see that Mom’s fondness for telling ‘little white lies’ had grown to epic proportions – that because she had no foundation (memories) to support even the most basic of truths, she was making things up as she went along, trying not to ‘worry’ anyone with the simple fact that she didn’t KNOW what was true or not anymore. Regrettably, even more than a year after her death, the chasm this caused between members of the family remains.
I might have Irish blood in my veins, but I’ll never ‘kiss the Blarney Stone’ in order to be able to ‘couch’ what I have to say; I’ve seen the damage it can do. I will, however, continue trying to drive the snakes out of my life as I stay true to myself here on … the other side of 55.