Month: March 2014

Being Irish

There are so many celebrations in March, the Ides, the swallows returning to Capistrano, the Vernal Equinox and the warming of the north, but nothing beats the shear madness of St. Patrick’s day. Dad would say, “on St. Patrick’s day there are only two kinds of people in the world, those who are Irish and those who wish they were.” It’s one of those anonymous sayings, but cool nonetheless. I’ve been to that place in Ireland, saw the homestead my grandfather left as a boy. The village of Ballisekerry, the town of Ballina, the county of Mayo, Province of Connaught, Ireland.

Mayo is where in legend the Sinn Fein began as the Gaelic League. The furthest away from the English and their plantations, bordering on the cold and wild Atlantic. Where hedge schools taught children Irish history, tradition and the Irish language that was not allowed in the English schools. The most horrible book on the Irish is THE STORY OF THE IRISH RACE by Seumas MacManus, originally written in the 1940s, it has been revised and reprinted through June 1972, the year of my copy. Full of inaccuracies, still in print, it is a testament to the way the Irish looked at the world back in the beginning of the twentieth century, when the Troubles were a way of life for the Irish Catholics. Troubles that continued for the better part of a century. Where to look at someone was to know if they were Anglican or Catholic, which is stunning in and of itself.

To be Irish in America is to have a different view from those in Ireland, one that is romantic, an idealized perspective of one who has not lived it. In talking to a friend in Ireland recently, she told me they don’t even HAVE a St. Patrick’s Day parade in Dublin. Laughing out loud. Imagine!

I understand the pride of ethnicity, the pull of what it was like for those who were there. I’m second generation on my Dad’s side, fourth on Mom’s [the Faddens being from the town of Castlereagh, county of Mayo, etc.] but I also understand that life in Ireland looked more precious, more enticing from across the Atlantic than it did close up. None of my relatives returned to Ireland, none went back to the home country. And that idealized view persisted, grew, and came into its own.

It’s a shame to boil all that is Irish into one drunken, mad day of celebration. The Irish are a spectacular people, with a history of powerful women, brave warriors, Brehons [arbitrator or mediator], never succumbing to the tyranny of the Romans, an egalitarian and open people. I think that’s the best part of being Irish for me!



Spies In WWII

My senior year in high school I participated in an experimental class. Twenty five of us were chosen. Bishop Alemany was a leveled school, grouped in homogeneous classes: college prep, comprehensive and duh! I have no idea what they called the last group. I had tested into the college prep group. And almost from Day One the nuns and I went round and round about what I was supposed to be learning. For me school meant being able to have a library in the same place I was required to be each and every day, and, bonus, no limit on the number of books you could take out, unlike the Burbank Public Library on Glen Oaks Boulevard with it’s only seven books at a time requirement.

So, understand, the Sisters of Saint Joseph of Carondelet and I had different goals as to what was my education and what wasn’t. By my senior year, someone said, ‘okay, let’s try her in this class.’ I have no idea who to thank for this bit of grace. It was a history class. Since I was in third grade, I had said I would be a historian. My actual learning process, despite my parents amazing and continuing commitment, resembled more of a child being raised by educated librarian wolves of the great tundra, so, in truth, there was little chance I would fulfill my goal. But history, the past of just about anything, I considered my exclusive territory clear through my bachelor’s degree in college.

For most of high school, I was, to say a fan seems almost cruel, but I was, a fan of anything and everything surreptitious World War II. I focused especially Allied spies, members of the Resistance, POWs, mostly the RAF Spitfire pilots and small cadres of individuals who risked life and limb to defeat the Nazis and their war machine. Perhaps it was due to my library access the first eight years of my schooling, at Villa Cabrini Academy, the plethora of stories on the lives of the saints, saints who too had risked life and limb in the name of Christ. So, the uncertainty of spying and defeating what was true evil in the world by people who were not that much older me was maybe a continuation of my childhood reading. And so, in this independent study class, I wrote a thesis on spies.

Before spies were hi-tech, before they had gadgets, before they wore tuxedos, played baccarat inhabiting the world of James Bond, they lived difficult, grimy, horrendously scary lives, lives without fanfare, lives without rest or respite, lives of danger and terror. And, after the war, when they had a chance to come to terms with what they had won and what they had lost, they wrote their stories, histories. The stories were gritty. There was little glory, only the end of the war or death. And yet, they did this, volunteered, said yes, despite the fear. Because of these resistors, both homegrown and foreign nationals, the Allied forces triumphed. Much was lost so that there could be a win.

Elizabeth Wein‘s CODE NAME VERITY takes up that tradition of the dread of fighting covertly behind enemy lines. It is not a pretty story. It’s not a happy one. It is a story played out slowly, laboriously, and elegantly, letting us know how excruciating it was to fight a war from the inside out, and how many people were willing to risk, to say everything is so cliché, but all. No matter how many died in battles, assaults,  landings, and no question, we needed them, we praise them, we call them our Greatest Generation, we also needed those who were willing to risk their lives and save their souls on a narrow battlefield in one on one mental combat, a not-photographed battlefield, not trumpeted or on the front page of the Times, one that was shrouded in secrecy, unknown.

Ms. Wein says this is about women and their participation in the war. And yes, this book is. But there is so much more, because defeating evil knows no gender, no age, no nationality. And it is perhaps the most unlikeliest of us who raises her hand, almost casually, and says ‘I’ll go.”  CODE NAME VERITY is an excellent reminder of that ideal.