Today is the day for all good hibernophiles to celebrate the object of their affection. That is, the lore and life and culture of Hibernia.
If you’re pondering the link to St. Patrick’s Day, it is traced to antiquity. Hibernia was the name used by the Romans to refer to the island we now call Ireland.
And everyone’s a hibernophile, to some degree, on March 17.
The Chicago River runs green, and if you haven’t watched the time-lapse video of the dyeing, it’s worth a couple minutes of YouTube time.
St. Patrick’s Day parades across America boast amazing durations, some even preceding independence. New York’s first parade was 1766, Philadelphia’s in 1771 and Boston’s in 1794.
Unlike most metropolises, which host their observances on the nearest weekends, Savannah’s historic parade—sponsored by the Hibernian Society since 1824—is always held on the actual date. Despite its frequent workday scheduling, hibernophiles in Savannah turn out in numbers matching those in much larger cities.
But celebratory processions are a product of the holiday, not the cause of it.
It’s easy enough to forget the reverence of the day because of the revelry surrounding it. Especially so since the Irish penchants for festivity are so inculcating. The wearing of the green, the witticisms and proverbs and toasts, the gift of blarney, the legends of shillelaghs and leprechauns—they all seamlessly slide in alongside the shamrock and the patron saint.
The lilting blessings complement the sacred and comprehensive prayer of St. Patrick’s breastplate (which no true hibernophile can ignore). That’s the powerful protection prayer, penned in the fifth century, whose more familiar lines include “Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me, Christ within me …” and a continuing litany of like construction invoking not only Christ, but also God and listing perils and temptations. Its words were set to music in the 1889 hymn “I Bind Unto Myself Today,” the title taken from the prayer’s opening line.
Collectively it all casts a broad vision of the enduring qualities hibernophiles hold dear: Irish love of life coupled with intense religiousness, sprinkled throughout with impish humor.
Part of the lure stems from Ireland’s ancient roots, which reach back millennia without the curbing effect of Roman conquest.
The early Brehon Law is a fascinating study in itself, and its shaping effect on the Irish society until it mixed and merged with adoption of English jurisprudence in the 17th century is notably relevant.
The native legal system invoked no state power, and was remarkably pragmatic and often ahead of its time on issues such as women’s rights. It emphasized restitution rather than punishment in criminal matters, and addressed with particularity many of society’s most basic details. For example, according to Brehon dictates, a doctor’s house was required to have four doors that opened out so patients could be seen from every side.
Its precepts and principles sought fairness and justice, and the Brehons—arbitrators and jurists, rather than legislators—often made decrees in forms of shrewd and sagacious statements.
Those centuries of early Irish law begat many of the popular proverbs surviving to this day. Adages such as “Many a time a man’s mouth broke his nose,” and “Everyone is wise until he speaks,” are traceable to Brehon traditions.
The early doctrines often meshed easily with early Christianity, too. Brehon Law demanded that “whoever comes to your door, you must feed them and care for them with no questions asked”—such blind hospitality was legal requirement, not custom or cultural etiquette.
Drawing from such a deep and rich well, the wealth of treasured Irish blessings isn’t surprising, whatever the occasion. Beyond the familiar “May the road rise to meet you” toast, here are a couple more worth savoring this Hibernophilia Day.
May you be poor in misfortune,
Rich in blessings,
Slow to make enemies,
Quick to make friends.
But rich or poor, quick or slow,
May you know nothing
From this day forward.
Fishing figured prominently among Irish pastimes, even so far as to provide a Gaelic twist on the bird-and-bush aphorism declaring that “a trout in the pot is better than a salmon in the sea,” and a similar-themed toast:
The health of a salmon to you: A long life, a full heart and a wet mouth.
However you might pay tribute on this St. Patrick’s Day to the delightful Irish people and traditions, do so with a nod toward their universally adoptable spirit that well regards God, nature, heritage and language.
I’ll leave you with appropriate excerpts from a poem attributed to Thomas Langan, titled “Where is Ireland?”:
Wherever there’s a song to sing,
A friend that needs a hand,
A cause to follow, come what may—
There is Ireland!
You’ll know it by its laughter,
You’ll know it by its tears,
You’ll know it by the warmth of heart
That lasts through all the years.
Ireland is everywhere today.
May you read a little Thomas Moore, watch a few scenes of The Quiet Man, hum along to “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling,” and find yourself among friends.