Spring Break

A friend invited me to a St. Patrick's day event at a local pub that was serving green beer as a promotion, which I declined reminding him that I was Irish and did not drink with amateurs. I might have recalled the old Irish saying that an Irishman is not drunk as long as he has two fingers to grasp a blade of grass to keep him from falling off the Earth. But the real reason I was not interested in going is that from the time I was fifteen, I knew that beer was dark brown, never green, and it was not necessary to wear green or carry around little plastic shamrocks to feel Irish. William Butler Yeats said about a fellow country man, “Being Irish, he had an abiding sense of tragedy, which sustained him through temporary periods of joy” and it is that sense of tragedy that reminds me of my heritage and keeps me from the annual indulgence in green beer and shamrocks.

Irish stereotypes aside, in many parts of the US, spring break and St. Patrick's Day come at the same time. When I was teaching in Texas, we had the additional distraction of South by Southwest going on in Austin. The last class before spring break may be a more daunting task than the last class before the Thanksgiving break in terms of trying to get students to focus on something other than beer and parties. Instead, I devoted one class session each year to a celebration of my Irish heritage in the form of a history of The Easter Rising in Dublin and a discussion of what it meant to be of Irish descent. I used the time to show how racism hurt individuals and cultures without ever mentioning the more common racial tensions of Texas. Finally, I used the occasion to suggest that alcohol reduction during spring break might be beneficial. The lecture drew many visitors to my class and became the basis for a feature article in a local paper.

Dublin, Easter 1916
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Crown Copyright. IWM

I began my discussion by pointing out that green beer was for intoxication, not for enjoying the beverage and asked them to remember what the holiday meant to the Irish and the meaning of wearing the green and shamrocks. Small things, like the Irish government defending its use of the shamrock as a registered trade mark in international courts. The real fun began when talking about the color green and its importance in Irish culture. Irish republicanism and hundreds of years of bigotry from the English led to the Easter Rising that set the tone for the next 100 years of fighting between the English and Irish and finally to the Good Friday Armistice. I shared William Butler Yeats Easter 1916 with them that ends with these lines commemorating the execution of the leaders of the Rising:

And what if excess of love   
Bewildered them till they died?   
I write it out in a verse—
MacDonagh and MacBride   
And Connolly and Pearse
Now and in time to be,
Wherever green is worn,
Are changed, changed utterly:   
A terrible beauty is born.

I showed them pictures of the Dublin Post Office that was the headquarters for the Irish Republican Army. I showed them pictures of the damage done to down town Dublin by British artillery. I told them the story of James Connolly who was wounded during the barrage on the Post Office and was unable to stand for his court martial or execution, so the British allowed him a chair when he faced the firing squad. I told them the stories of Wild Geese all over the world who wear green in memory of Ireland and these men who gave their lives for a nation they believed should be free.

In the end, I came back to the parties that they were all preparing for at the beach, listening to music in Austin or dancing jigs in pubs that think Guinness is a company that decides what world records are. I asked them to remember that green shamrocks were a registered trade mark of a proud culture. I asked them to think about the 16 martyrs of the Easter Rising of 1916. I asked them to push that green beer into the sewer and remain sober so that the lives of Irish heroes could be remembered. Finally, I told them that observing Saint Padraig's Day should include raising their glass to the men who gave their lives for Ireland, and that glass should contain Guinness, brown, dark stout, but it was all right to think green for one day.

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