Published: 15 March, 2012
by ILLTYD HARRINGTON
ON Saturday I put on my red rugby shirt and sat watching Wales trounce Italy – one of three old men, not a bit self-conscious of our allegiance, bleating like Welsh mountain goats.
This Saturday my green silk tie will be worn when I go to a more formal dinner to toast St Patrick on his day in the shadow of Roedean girls’ public school on the Sussex coast. It will be a traditional wetting of the shamrock, a ceremony quite genteel in these parts.
Seventy-five years ago my grandmother waited for the fresh shamrock to arrive from her native city of Cork. She pinned it on us like medals. We swept along to Mass as the second generation descendants from immigrants to Wales.
Afterwards applauding the saints and eating masses of food and drinks, our adults eventually gave way to the children for the great national Irish national dish of boiled bacon, cabbage and potatoes, – a brunch now served in five-star restaurants.
On two occasions later in life I endured the New York equivalent – a day of manufactured celebration. The Irish newly-qualified and acceptable as suburban, middle-class made a Broadway production of it with green waistcoats, leprechaun hats and shillelaghs.
The upmarket bars sold expensive plates of Irish stew.
I only secured entrance to one when I accompanied John Dockery an American footballer and CBS commentator.
In the early 1930s the Irish in my Welsh neighbourhood were very assertive in their Irish pride.
Previously they had a drum and pipe band which played the faithful into church. Our congregation had been discouraged from getting too close to the Welsh and Protestant faith.
Mixed marriages were frowned upon well into the 1950s. We learned of our Irish roots and culture from song and dance. It was a day when folk memory overcame actuality.
It was still possible the re-enact the history of Ireland in dance.
I tried to get through the dance The Walls of Limerick but in reality my mistakes would have conceded defeat to Oliver Cromwell.
But our yearning and consolation was in the ballads and the songs.
Oh Danny Boy is a stab to the heart and I'll take you home again Kathleen a deep sadness.
The Irish Derby sweep, we learned, was not only a chance of great wealth but a funder of superb hospitals – a tradition of care that is still being put to the test.
Irish doctors nurses and nuns are prominent in Médecins sans Frontières, put into moral difficulty, in the face of Aids, by the Pope and his antagonism to contraception.
Their internationalism puts to shame the isolationism of Eamon de Valera and his long domination over the southern Irish.
Near blind, mixed-race, Spanish American he managed to export Ireland’s talented young and the old devil signed the condolence book in the Nazi embassy in Berlin on Hitler’s death.
My mother came from the village that gave Michael Collins “The Big Fellah” to the world. He often came to visit his father’s creamery and played with the children, including my mother.
After Welshman Lloyd George persuaded the Big Fellah to sign the 1921 treaty creating the Irish Free State, he said: “I have signed my own death warrant.”
De Valera ordered his assassination as he was on his way back from visiting his father in West Cork.
De Valera went to Mass and Communion daily as did Giulio Andreotti, the don of Italian politics who ordered the Mafia to murder Aldo Moro, a progressive Italian prime minister who wanted to admit the left wing into government.
But Ireland, on the other hand, produced Mary Robinson a president with a progressive and liberating face and a leader of international human rights.
In the post-war period the Taoiseach Jack Lynch began challenging the monopoly of the Church in health and education and, although being a poor country, he gave OAPs free fuel, electricity, and travel passes.
One of the few delights of being the deputy leader of the GLC was in our Peace Year of 1983, a duty that was approved by the London public.
This enabled me to spend some time with Sean McBride a post-war Irish foreign minister who won the Nobel Peace Prize and the Lenin Peace Prize.
Now, four generations forward, many of my contemporaries’ children have learned to speak Welsh and take pride in the great traditions of Wales.
The Irish gift for politics is often rough but to balance the awful corruption of Charlie Haughey, we have had Garret FitzGerald as Taoiseach, Conor Cruise O’Brien, not only a fine journalist but a courageous UN official, who challenged violence and bloodshed in the Congo.
This why people spawned like myself had the gene of melancholy as well as self-assertion. Imagine an elderly woman I met in my youth, Maggie Linehan. She had emigrated from Ireland with her sister Josie, 16 years old, looking forward to a new life in Wales. A depression in the iron works meant that Josie shortly afterwards moved on, catching a boat to Boston, Massachusetts a long journey by sea from Newport. She took her cooking utensils with her.
The Irish and Welsh are at heart the same. I have a foot in both camps like the Irish water spaniel, a gun dog who won his class at Crufts on Sunday night and named after the Welsh wizard Merlin. That’s a winning combination.