Posts Tagged ‘St. Patrick’s Day’

Ah, another St. Patrick’s Day.

No parades this year with the drone of pipe bands and local fire departments showing off their freshly shined trucks while kids aboard them throw fistfuls of candy at the yelling crowds. No raucous drunk buses trekking from pub to pub filled with folks in plastic Kelly green derbies and Kiss Me I’m Irish t-shirts. No restaurants, firehalls or Hibernian Centers packed with revelers chowing down on their corned beef and cabbage and pints of Guinness.

No, this is not a year that will be tipped toward the louder side of this holiday. Instead, it will be one that leans toward the more somber and melancholy side of the Irish character, which is never far from the louder and more sociable part.

For me, moving to this more melancholy part is not a challenge. It usually brings memories of my mom, who has been gone nearly 25 years now, to the forefront. This would have been her 88th birthday. St. Patrick’s Day and her are permanently connected in my mind, down to the color green that I associate so much with her memory.

It’s the cool green of damp ferns, bright and vibrant in the yellow of the sun yet more fully beautiful and rich in the blue darkness of the shadows.

I stopped for just a moment now and a flood of memories came over me. That made me even more melancholy because they were so many of the same memories that I have been relishing for years now while I know there are so many more that are deeply tucked away in the folds of time and mind, hidden so that they would most likely be forever lost to me.

So, try your best to enjoy your St. Patrick’s Day this year, be it with a pint and a song or a tear and a memory. Or both.

Here’s a bit of Irish from the Chieftains, who we lucky enough to see at Carnegie Hall on St. Paddy’s Day many years ago.  Wonderful show. These are two songs with Morning Dew in their titles that are distinctly different. The first is the instrumental The Morning Dew which has the feel of march and the second, the wistfully sad song of memory, May Morning Dew.

Have a good day.


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For this Sunday morning music, it would be hard to not feature a bit of the Irish. It is St. Patrick’s Day, after all. So I thought I’d share a beautiful version of old Irish chestnut, Raglan Road, performed by actress Cristin Milioti. Hardly an Irish name but this is a lovely version of a beautiful tune. (You can click here to see the poetry of these lyrics.) You might recognize her from her work on the second season of Fargo where she played Betsy Solverson, the cancer stricken police chief’s wife.

I thought I’d also replay a post from a few years back about one of my Irish ancestors. As I say in the post, it’s story of many immigrant families. Have a great day. You, too, St. Patrick.

GC Myers- Icon: Mary TOne of the things I am trying to emphasize with this current Icon series is the fact that we are all flawed in some way, that we all have deficiencies and stumbles along the way. Yet, uncovering these faults in my research, I find myself holding affection for many of these ancestors that dot my family tree. Perhaps it is the simple fact that without them I would not be here or perhaps I see some of my own flaws in them.

I’m still working on that bit of psychology.

The 12″ by 12″ canvas shown here is titled Icon: Mary T. She is my great-great grandmother. Born Mary Anne Ryan of, I believe, Irish immigrant parents in the Utica area (though some records list her as being born in Ireland) she married Michael Tobin, an Irishman ( it is thought that he was from County Kerry but the research is still up in the air on this) who came to the States around 1850, right in the midst of the Great Irish Immigration.

Michael worked on the railroads being built throughout central New York in the late 1800’s. Following the progress of the railroads, the couple and their growing family worked their way down through the state towards Binghamton, NY where they eventually settled. Mary Anne eventually ended up as a housekeeper in a prominent home in the area. Michael died around 1890 although records are sketchy on this and Mary died at my great-grandmother’s home in Elmira in 1914.

All told, they had seven daughters and three sons. Most worked in the then booming tobacco industry of that time and place. Most of her daughters worked as tobacco strippers and some worked as cigar rollers, as did her sons.

That’s the simple telling of the story. Looking into the back stories provide a little more depth which can sometimes change all perceptions.

None of her sons ever married and all had desperate problems with alcohol. One son was listed in a newspaper report from some years later as having been arrested for public drunkenness around 40 times over the years, seven times in one year. He was also arrested for running a still more than once during the prohibition years. Two of her sons died in institutions where they had been placed for their alcoholism.

A Silk Spencer

A Silk Spencer

I came across a story in the local Binghamton newspapers about Mary and two of her daughters, who were also working as domestics with here in the prominent Binghamton home owned by a local attorney and nephew of the founder of Binghamton. In 1874, the story reports that a number  of items came up missing, including a “forty dollar silk spencer,” which is a sort of short garment like the one shown here at the right.  Neighbors informed the owner of the spencer that Mary had a number of the stolen items in her possession and a search warrant was sworn out.

Detectives came to the Tobin home and made a thorough search but turned up nothing. They then, acting on a hunch, tore up the carpets which revealed a trap door that led to a small hidden basement. There they found many of the stolen items but no spencer. But they did find a silk collar that had been attached to it. Mary and her two daughters were arrested.

Mary did finally claim to be the sole thief and her daughters were released. I have yet to find how this particular story ends and how Mary was punished but based on the futures of some of her children I can’t see it being a happy ending.

Doing this painting, I was tempted to make my Mary a bit harsher, a lit more worn. But as I said, there’s some sort of strange ancestral affection at play even though I know she was obviously a flawed human. She’s smaller and more delicate looking in the painting than I imagine she was in reality. But maybe that’s little payback for the information her story reveals about the future of my family.

This is a simple painting because, as I pointed out, this is a simple story at its surface.  It’s the story of many, many immigrant families.

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Another St. Patrick’s Day, that celebration of all things Irish– parades, pints and more Kelly green than the mind can fully process. They say that well over 30 million Americans claim to have Irish roots.

Growing up, I always believed we did as well because my grandmother was an O’dell, which certainly seems Irish. But doing genealogy over the last decade I have discovered that the O’dell was changed through the years from Odell and before that from Odle and, most likely, before that from Woddell, It turns out that it was not Irish at all.

No, it was British. And for the Irish that is a big distinction.

But I also discovered that my father’s great-grandparents were Irish immigrants during the Great Migration of the middle of the 19th century. It was something I wasn’t sure of before I started my genealogy work. I still haven’t found where they originally came from in Ireland.

Icon: Mary T.

Their’s was a pretty stock story. The father, Michael Patrick Tobin, worked on building the railroads in central New York, ultimately settling in the Binghamton area, where most of his family worked for the next several decades in the tobacco industry there. Most were tobacco strippers or cigar makers.

I am not positive that his wife was actually born in Ireland. There are conflicting accounts but her parents definitely were. She was the subject of one of my Icon paintings from a couple of year’s back shown here on the right. Her story is an interesting one, one that I wrote about on this blog. You can read it by clicking here.

So, it turns out I am one of those 30-some million with a bit of Irish blood, about 16% according to the DNA tests. I don’t give it much thought except on this particular day and even then I realize that these folks were little different than most of my other ancestors from other countries who left the hardships of their homelands for what they hoped would be a better life in America. I can’t say they all found wonderful lives but perhaps they were a bit better off than they might have been had they stayed put.

Okay, here a bit of Irish music for the day, a nice reel, The Glen Road to Carrick, from a contemporary Irish group, FullSet. I like the feel of this- it has a fresh edge that makes me want to drive too fast. By the way, the painting at the top is from a late Irish painter, Paul Henry, who painted primarily in the first half of the 20th century. I am a fan of his work and featured it here a couple of years back.

Have yourself a good day.

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Paul Henry - The Fairy ThornI thought since this was St. Patrick’s Day that  I would feature an Irish painter.  There are a couple of obvious choices– Francis Bacon and Jack Butler Yeats, for example– but I chose Paul Henry, who spent his life painting his native Ireland from 1877 until 1958.  He was perhaps the best known painter in Ireland through the first half of the 20th century though many of us here in the States may not recognize the name.

You will however recognize the familiarity of his landscapes, most set in the west of Ireland in the Connemara district, an area described by Oscar Wilde as “ a savage beauty.”   For many, Henry’s landscapes represent the idealized image of the Irish countryside with simple white cottages set among stark, barren hills and rolling green fields.  But his greens are not that bright Kelly green so often used in depicting Ireland.  No, Henry often chose blue and brown tints in his work.  He used a very distinct and deceptively cool palette in his painting which enhances the coolness and solitary nature of the landscapes.

So, even if you haven’t an ounce of Irish blood, I hope you will enjoy these images of Eire.  Have a good St. Paddy’s Day.

Paul Henry Paul Henry The Fishing Fleet Galway

(c) Queen's University, Belfast; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Paul Henry Killary Bay Paul Henry A Farm in County Down Paul Henry A Connemara Village 1933-34 Paul Henry - Connemara Landscape

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st_patrickI have much to do this morning but thought I would take a moment on this Saint Patrick’s Day  to play a bit of traditional Irish music.  There’s always the temptation to play some America-Irish song that is now attached to our celebrations here which have evolved from a celebration of the Irish saint into an excuse for a one-day drunkfest for obnoxious folks regaled in Kelly green plastic derbies and Mardi Gras beads.  But I thought today deserved something a little more true to the timbre of the day.

I’ve always been drawn to the sound of pipes from a round the world and the uillean pipes of Ireland have a uniquely sorrowful yet sweet sound.  It produces what can described as a mournful wail which fits in well with an aspect of the Irish character.  Here’s a tune called, fittingly, Eire played by a master, Liam O’Flynn,  of the uillean pipes which differ from thetypical  bagpipe in that they are not blown into by the mouth.  The air that flows over the reed to create the sound is produced by a bellows that is pressed against the player’s body by their elbow.

So enjoy a bit of true Irish music and enjoy the day whether you are Irish or not.  Now where did I put that plastic derby?


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celtic-shamrock-hiI thought that for a bit of Sunday morning music this week, I would stick with something that sort of fits with  tomorrow’s St. Patrick’s Day observance.  I say observance because while we often loudly celebrate it here with a little too much Guinness and more than enough Kelly green clothing, it is a more somber and religious holiday in Ireland.  But that being said, I thought I would play a song that is more in the spirit of  a raucous celebration.

This is Big Strong Man from the Irish band , The Wolfe Tones.  They have been around for about 50 years and are primarily known for their repertoire of rebel songs.  I am somewhat ambivalent about using them as I have a long-time friend who lives in County Armagh in Northern Ireland who has often described to me over the years the fatigue and the toll that this multi-generational conflict has taken on the people there.  But this is a great and fun song that doesn’t take  any political stand.

Have a great Sunday!

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newgrange-spiral-stoneI was looking for something to use here on the blog as a symbol for Ireland or St. Patrick’s Day.  I didn’t want to go the typical shamrock and leprechaun route. We’ve all seen enough of those.  Instead, I began to focus on their triple spiral symbol, the triskele.  It first showed up on the stones at Newgrange in County Meath,  a large burial mound or temple which dates back over 5000 years, making it older than the pyramids of Egypt.

The elaborately carved stones featured three spirals which meld effortlessly into one another, as though it is a continuum without beginning or end.  Though its origins and meaning are still vague at best, this triple spiral has come down through the ages as being symbolic of the trinity of later Christian believers and even found its way into the form of the ubiquitous shamrock.  I think the mystery and symbology of the triple spiral is fascinating in the way it still resonates in some primal part of us.  It is an elemental symbol, a part of who we are as a people.  And by that, I don’t mean simply the Irish but all people.  Everyone can identify with this symbol of  the unity of time and constant rebirth.

Maybe this unifying aspect is why there is such great appeal of  this day for so many, Irish and non-Irish alike.  I know that while I drink a Guinness or two today, probably dressed in a Kelly green shirt  as I listen to Danny Boy or some other maudlin ballad for the umpteenth time, I will stop for a moment and think of this trinity of spirals and feel a unity with the past.  And the future and the present.

Maybe the song will be Carrickfergus.  Here’s a version from Loudon Wainwright III that I very much like.


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Today is  St. Patrick’s Day and I was going to write about the day and how it was my late mother’s birthday.   She would have been 78 today.  But today I’m interested in a story in the news as of late brought about by the recent publication of a book by Rebecca Skloot, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.

It tells the story of the amazing cells of Henrietta Lacks that survive to this day, almost 59 years after death.  You see, Henrietta was a poor African-American woman living in the Baltimore area in 1951.  She was 31 years old when she was diagnosed with cervical cancer and her treating physician took a sample of her cancer cells without her knowing, which was common at the time.  Later that year, Henrietta succumbed to the cancer and died.

In most cases, the life of a 31 year old poor black woman who died so long ago might only be remembered by a very small group of family and friends, and even then, only fleetingly.  But Henrietta’s name is very much alive today. 

Her name and her cells.

You see, the cells taken from other humans have been found to have  short lifespans outside the body,  usually days.  But not Henrietta’s.  Hers were unlike all others and continued to live.  And live and live and live. This was a boon for medical research.  Her cells , now called HeLa Cells, were used by Jonas Salk in developing the polio vaccine and in the years since have been part of almost all new vaccines and medical developments.  Her cells continue to grow and have become a factory of sorts as there are companies that mass produce her cells for use in medical research. 

 In fact, over 50 million metric tons of her cells have grown in those decades.  To put  that into perspective, that would be enough to fill the space of the Empire State Building– 15 times.

There’s more to the story.  Her immediate family was not aware until 1976  that her cells were stll alive and being produced for sale and were, in fact, a multi-billion dollar business.  They have never seen a penny and are ironically without health insurance and in need of  treatments that have been developed with Henrietta’s cells.

I don’t want to get into a rant over the ethics of big business and healthcare but it brings to light a question of what constitutes life and ownership of our own cells outside our body.  I don’t really know where I stand on the subject.  I would like to think that those cells are indeed a part of Henrietta Lacks and that her life continues in them.  It would be a lovely concept to think of her cells forming an immortality that extends beyond the memory of a small group of family.  That the spirit her family saw in her lives on.

Is it so?  I certainly don’t know.  It would be nice if her family could see even a token gesture from the companies that have been built on the legacy of her cells.  Then maybe her cells could live on in other ways as well.

Happy Birthday, Mom.

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