Thursday, November 27, 2014

Rites of Passage, Rituals, and the Communal spirit.

Wedding Plans:

I will be married soon, the first time around for me and for him.  Neither of us is the proverbial spring chicken, and I used to think that any kind of formal wedding was for the young and inexperienced—kids too naïve and/or stupid to be jaded by the real world.  In my moments of true radical analysis, I’ve even condemned myself for engaging in a bourgeois ceremony that is anathema to my personal philosophy: why are spending a small fortune on ourselves when people in this world are starving or tortured, victims of war, famine or crippling poverty? Why are we celebrating an institution that seemingly has lost its importance in this century? Half of all marriages end in divorce.  Children become the pawns in the divorce game; one or both partners are destitute even before the papers have ben served.  Two people who once loved each other sometimes leave a marriage bitter, angry, or disillusioned.  Besides, he and I are true bohemians and free thinkers, unencumbered by much of the conventional thinking of our society.  Those thoughts spun around in my mind as we began planning the ceremony and reception. Why cave into societal norms?  Oh, I wanted to marry the man whose existence had become entwined in mine like a vine, but I truly wanted to run off to some isolated place and share our love in private.  Until. . .

Until I experienced a revelation! The ceremony shows our unity and our willingness to display that unity among our family and friends—even though we are no child bride and groom. As one of my relatives stated, “It’s good to get together for a wedding and not a a tragedy or a brawl.” As we age, we attend far more funerals than weddings, and often, families argue over trivial things. Too often we only see our family and friends on special occasions, and too often, those occasions are sad.  Even the happy occasions are too infrequent.  In our society, we can argue that marriage too often ends in divorce, that the money spent on most receptions could be better spent on something more practical, and that—especially for an older couple—such extravagance is misplaced and even an ostentatious display; however, my relative’s comment resulted in an epiphany of sorts. 

At a funeral, the community joins to mourn with the deceased’s family and friends.  We cry and sometimes smile through tears as we remember the one who has been taken from us. A wedding is also a coming together of the community, but it is a celebration, a coming together of the populace in joy and hope.  The assembled members of the community will gather in the church and later in the hall to meet those they haven’t seen in a long time, to toast the couple (us, in this case), and to share in the communal spirit of hope the union of two lives inspires.  Such a union takes courage as well as hope.  Merging two lives that have been separate entities is scary no matter the age or experience of the parties involved, and that blending of souls is a risk that two people are willing to take—not only for one day—but also for the rest of their existence.  So, the community gathers to applaud the courage and hope we bring with our decision to stand before God at the communal altar and declare our willingness to support each other for as long as we live.  Just as we need the rituals of mourning, we need those rituals that inspire hope and joy. The ornate wedding dress, the wedding rings, and the cutting of the cake are not empty tokens; they are important symbols of unity and commitment often disregarded in a world too ready to dispose of others, too ready to look for easy answers with the click of a mouse.  Those symbols are pulsing, burning representations of love, devotion, and faith.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

The Irish Famine and its Modern Legacy

On November 7, 2014, my fiancé and I attended a block party/parade at the Irish Cultural Museum in New Orleans commemorating the Irish Famine. Clergy, Hibernians, historians, documentarians, and general French Quarter folk attended the event. The Poor Clares, an Irish band, reunited for this event, and partygoers paraded from St Louis Cathedral to Conti Street, the home of the museum. Local eateries lined the street, enticing revelers with samples of their food as the band played.  Inside, a minister spoke on the shame of such a blatant form of genocide while people wearing shamrock necklaces drank Jameson on the blocked off street.

These are my people. We come from a fable country that many call the Emerald Isle, a land of green fields and fierce conflict.  The British invaded this country thousands of years ago, suppressing the native Irish and tossing them off their land.  This genocide gained momentum when England embraced Protestantism under the Tudors and grew even more in intensity when Cromwell came to power as the Lord Protector; however, the Brits could never completely break the spirit of Ireland’s people.  We are a feisty, stubborn, and determined bunch.  Still, in spite of our perseverance, one period in this sad history of beautiful Ireland nearly brought these proud people to their knees.  The Irish Famine, or The Potato Famine, as it was often called, was genocide on the Irish people, a punishment on them for their refusal to bend under the English yoke.  To the Brits, this was a dirty and unwashed race—different in religion, in language, and in customs.  They sought to destroy the Irish.

When the potato crop failed in the 1840’s, the Irish poor lost a major staple of their diet.  Ironically, Ireland was still exporting large quantities of food to Britain, enough to feed the whole population, and many British officials remained deaf to the plight of the Irish people.  Sir Charles Trevalyan declared the famine a “judgment from God” and a “way to decrease the surplus population.” His words stink of genocide.  The Catholic population had few rights: they could not vote, hold public office, or even own land.  The education of their children was curtailed, and though 80% of the population was Catholic, they lived in the direst deprivation.  They worked for landlords who were often absentee, and the native population could be thrown off the land when a bad crop threatened their mater’s profit.  In the “Famine Years,” one million people died, and another million left their homeland.  Like many, some of my ancestors died with lips dyed green; they had eaten grass in a vain attempt to survive.

Still, others made new lives for themselves. My man’s ancestor was only in this country ten years when he was in the Louisiana State Legislature.  My late great-grandfather eventually was a foreman in a brewery.  These people and others like them journeyed to the United States, Australia, and Canada, contributing to their new homes and communities; nonetheless, they remained proudly Irish, keeping the memory of the Emerald Isle beating in their hearts. We their ancestors feel the pull of our ancestral land, reveling in its beauty, gracious hospitality, mythic history, and rousing ballads. We often journey back, seeking the spirituality of Patrick, the heroism of Brian Boru, and the courage of men like Wolfe Tone.  Though we rejoice in the lands our forbearers adopted, we still feel pride in the fight of those men and women who went before us.  We remember brave souls like Robert Emmet, Wolfe Tone, and Grace O’Malley as we dance to the Poor Clares, drink Irish coffee, and eat potato soup in a block party in New Orleans.  We can only hope that we make them proud--never fearing to fight the good fight, run the race, or defy the machine that threatens to kill.