A word to the wise – March 2008

Verbum satis sapientibus: A word to the wise is sufficient

February and March can be hard to endure for some folks. We have to look for reasons to break the routine, leave the snowbound cabin and celebrate. February has Mardi Gras and St. Valentine’s Day for respite. What about March?
There’s the first day of spring and, this year at least, even Easter. But for a reason to celebrate, St. Patrick’s Day on March 17 is hard to beat for good food, good drink and convivial company. To prepare for this holy day and holiday, this month we offer a wee Irish Glossary, starting with who else but himself, the Emerald Isle’s most revered saint, Hibernia’s champion…
St. Patrick. Credited with Christianizing Ireland over three decades in the mid-fifth century, Patrick was not a native of Ireland, although he was a Celt or Gael. He probably was born in what is now Wales, either in the Severn Valley or on the Isle of Anglesea. He was a Romanized Christian who was kidnapped at age sixteen by Irish raiders to tend sheep. After gaining his freedom and returning home, Patrick took Holy Orders and returned to the Irish, who embraced both him and the faith.
Celts. A wildly independent people once spread throughout Europe, the Celts eventually were pushed to the continent’s corners by successive invasions, surviving in Scotland, Wales and Brittany on the coast of France, as well as in Cornwall, besides Ireland. The Celtic language, Gaelic (called “Irish” in Ireland), still can be heard in some reaches of these lands, areas known in Ireland as the Gaeltaech.
Hibernia was the Roman name for Ireland. Though ruling the heart of Britain for several centuries, the Romans never really got to Ireland. Hibernia in Latin means “a wintry place,” but the word’s derivation likely is from the Irish Ibh-erna, splicing country and noble.
Erin, the Irish name for Ireland, comes from the same root, erna, and identifies “a noble race.” The words for Britain and England also are of Gaelic derivation. The early Celtic Brython means tattooed, while an-Gael simply means the Gaels. Curiously, the name Scotland comes from the Latin scotus, but denotes an Irishman. The term accompanied Gaelic people, or scoti, from northern Ireland who settled in Scotland about 500 A.D. The Roman name for Scotland, by the way, was Caledonia.
The Isle of Saints and Scholars came to describe Ireland because, first of all, the place is thick with saints. Virtually every crossroad claims one or two native saints, and place names sometimes refer to them. For instance, Kil-, as in Kilkenny, Kildare and so on, means church; Kilkenny is the church of St. Canice. My own patron, St. Gerald, was abbot and bishop in Mayo in the seventh and eighth centuries, although, like Patrick, he came from England. As for the scholarly reputation, Ireland was spared the terrifically destructive invasions of Goths, Vandals and others in the fifth and sixth centuries. Irish monks establishing monasteries throughout Europe, even into Italy, did much not only to preserve and spread Christianity, but to preserve the classic culture of Greece and Rome.
Whiskey. Like Kentucky’s, Ireland’s soil is rich in limestone, producing sweet grass and sweet water, which explain their fast horses and smooth whiskey. (Limestone underlies much of Wisconsin, too, but the best its burghers could come up with were good beer and healthy cows.) The best known Irish whiskey is Jameson’s, but whether it’s Bushmills, Powers, Paddys, Tullamore Dew or another, they’re all good and all better. As for other spirits, Guinness stout is perhaps the national potable, but porters and beers also are popular, especially Harp and Smithwicks (pronounced SMIT-icks).
Corned beef and cabbage is as welcome on our plate as it is anywhere on St. Patrick’s Day, but the word I have is that its tradition is less Irish than Irish American. A good authority contends that when the St. Patrick’s Day parade became popular in New York City, local boosters cast about for a “traditional” Irish dish to mark the occasion. Instead of potatoes and lamb or seafood, which is more likely on the menu in Ireland, they chose corned beef and cabbage. The latter is a staple throughout the world, while the corned beef allegedly was a gift of New York’s Jewish culture. Authentic or not, it’s a bona fide St. Patrick’s Day food today, with or without green beer.
A pity we don’t have space to cover the leprechauns, but that should be enough to get you through a St. Patrick’s Day conversation.

Word for the month
Blarney (BLAHR-nee), meaning the gift of the gab; adept flattery. Kissing a certain stone at Blarney castle in the south of Ireland is supposed to convey this gift. Doing so is mostly a practice of tourists, since of course the Irish are full of blarney from birth. And may the road rise up to meet you, the wind be always at your back, …and may you be in heaven a week before the devil knows you’re dead.

—Gerald Waite

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