Padraig is the Gaelic spelling of it, or just Patrick if you’re French and Lebanese and just want to keep it. It’s okay with me.

It’s my middle name you see, the first being Jeremiah. Old Barney up the alley told me, as a child, that I was blessed because I was named after a saint and a prophet.

Nope. I was named after my mother’s first boyfriend, officer Jeremiah O’Connell who grew up to become a police captain. My father would have no part of it and had me registered at city hall as Gerald Joseph.

But my mother had the last word, and I was baptized in the church as Jeremiah Patrick and that’s the end of it.

None of this was ever mentioned at the kitchen table, but when you’re the youngest boy sitting at the table with five big Irish brothers you hear a lot of good stuff, and if you’re blessed, you’ll live long enough to write about it before you die. Well, enough of the personal.

This essay today is simply a kind of ornament to hang on to the myths of St. Patrick’s Day. This is his day, you see, or in the mother tongue of my four immigrant grandparents, “La Fheile Padraig.”

I tried once to master Gaelic but gave it up. It’s a difficult language to get one’s tongue around.

But here it is once again — St Patrick’s Day. The way the Irish carry on you’d think it was the saint’s birthday, but it’s not. It celebrates the day of his death.  Now wouldn’t you know it? Ain’t that just pure Irish for you?

Death, you see, is a holy towel the Irish hang about their necks at birth and wear until they’re put in the box and dropped in the earth, or so my Aunt Kate put it.

It’s in our literature, paintings and songs. Take “Danny Boy,” for instance. Who doesn’t cry at “Danny Boy?”

My brother Jim, who studied opera, sang it at all family funerals including my father’s. It’s a sure fire heart breaker and provider of tears.

Aunt Mamie, my mother’s sister, reportedly said to a mourner as she left the front row, “There’s a seat down front for ya, if you like. It’s a bit wet, but it’s warm.”

Ain’t it just the way that St.Patrick’s Day comes smack in the heart of Lent. I’m told that somewhere in the past, someone lifted restrictions on eating and drinking so as to give a decent toast to Padraig on his day, not that he was Irish himself.

The books tell us that this saint of shamrocks was born into a wealthy Romano-British family, and at age sixteen he was kidnapped by Irish raiders and taken as a slave to Ireland where he worked as a shepherd.

Old Padraig did go home to his Romano beginnings, but he returned as a priest and converted all sinning Irish to the holy mother church, and forever more we had Irish whiskey and plastic green hats and the Chicago River flowing green.

Barney O’Reilly, an old man with terribly crippled feet who lived up the alley from us and hung out at the end of Skeeter O’Neal’s bar after his job of sweeping out the church, would tell the tale that the Irish discovered America.

“I know they say it was Columbus,” he’d say, “ but you see, Columbus wound up down in Cuba somewhere and thought that was it. On the way the Santa Maria got lost in the fog and there was this cook’s mate, Jimmy O’Reilly, who was such a terrible drunk that Columbus had him tossed over the side. Poor Jimmy survived and swam to shore where he was greeted by the savages in what we now know as New York City.”

By the way, old Barney died on my 9th birthday, and yes, my brother Jim sang “Danny Boy” at his Mass.

So the Irish came to the land Jimmy O’Reilly discovered, and lookin’ for work, they became priests and cops and firemen, and wouldn’t you know it, but it’s a fact that my family had one of each. Officer James Conlon Devine, Fire Capt. Kermith Devine, and Father Tommy Devine, now all sleeping in Jesus’ heavenly arms.

So it’s come to pass that on this night in every bar, saloon, tavern and bistro from Manhattan to Boston and even up on the frozen lip of the Kennebec, lads of every nationality, color and religion will do the proper thing, drop a shot glass of Jameson’s Irish into a pint of dry stout, and when the lights grow dim, retire to the nearest alley, lean their heads against the cold brick walls and lose it all. Try not to get it on your Sunday morning Mass trousers, boyos. Slainte.

 

J.P. Devine is a Waterville writer.


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