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  • Writer's pictureDoug Weiss

The Luck of the Irish

I have always been fascinated by expressions that have become part of our common use but the derivation of which seem to elude understanding. Take the one above. What is it that the expression refers to? On the face of it, the Irish peoples hardly seem very lucky. They were governed for hundreds of years by a foreign entity (Great Britain), under what could only be described as draconian rules of oppression. They were severely divided by their faith and allegiance or lack thereof to their foreign oppressors and made war on their own brothers and sisters without mercy. Their economy—now thankfully on the mend—has been for most of that period a total shambles, marked by famine, poverty and hardship. Talk about luck!

The Urban Dictionary suggests that the expression is really not intended to say luck as we normally think of it, but rather a positive attitude in the face of bad luck. Now that is certainly something with which the Irish people are familiar. And when you think about the caricature of the Irish in this country, it somehow seems more fitting. Motion pictures, novels and other forms of popular media through the last 100 years portrayed the Irish as lovable, carefree (in spite of their cares) and generally likable if somewhat besotted. As we celebrate St. Patrick’s day—also badly mischaracterized, it seems fitting that I make some attempt to set the record straight.

I have spent some time in Ireland and let me say that I found the Irish I met warm, friendly and honest to a fault. I also found them to be compassionate, industrious, passionate and sincere. I could go on, but the point is simply that what I did not find, except in jest, were any of those traits that popular literature ascribed to the Irish people. As for St.Patrick, whose death is celebrated in this country with a parade, the drinking of green beer and other banalities, his crime, for which he is duly punished annually, was to convert the Irish people to Christianity. The myth that he drove out the serpents is an ecclesiastical allegory. The snakes were the Druids who in the 5th century represented the dominant faith wielders in the Celtic countries. Lest you think them simple minded ruffians, let me remind you that it was the Druids who built Stonehenge, fought with and defeated the Roman armies and among other things gave rise to the Arthurian legends. It was those Druids who 17th century clergy considered so malign that they characterized them as serpents. Ireland is no stranger to internecine religious strife.

Having set the record a little bit straighter, I wanted to return to the expression that I began with because underneath the encrusted stereotypes there is a kernel of truth worth considering. To face life’s adversity with a positive attitude is indeed a rare gift, and it is one that has served the Irish well, during those centuries of death, despair, war, famine, and oppression. We could learn from it. At the risk of trivializing the point I have just made, there is an example of Irish luck in Wikipedia. An Irishmen steps into a pile of manure and remarks on it to another chap standing nearby. Noting that he has just gotten said manure all over his boots, he is reminded by his acquaintance that he must have the luck of the Irish because he was fortunate enough to be wearing boots and not bare feet. Laugh if you will, but that ability to look at an otherwise unfortunate event and see in it something redeeming is a trait we all could use a bit more of these days.

It is more than looking at the bright side; another of those expressions we should probably try to understand better. It is a foundational attitude based on the belief that whatever occurs in our lives there is something for which we should be grateful. It is humbling and inspiring at the same time to think about the implications of this view. So, on this St. Patrick’s day, I wish you the luck of the Irish, and hope that we all might take the view that our lives are fortunate indeed.

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