“May the road rise to meet you; May the wind be always at your back. May the sun shine warm upon your face; The rains fall soft upon your fields and until we meet again, May God hold you in the palm of His hand.” — Irish Blessing
History is written by conquerors, and, frankly, I don’t think their accounts are to be trusted.
Being 100% Irish-American, I’ve never felt good about the bad rap the Irish have gotten over the years. Most of the stereotypes are inaccurate and undoubtedly started by the English as a way to assuage their guilt for having decimated the country.
For example: Ireland used to be covered with forests, but the English cut down all the trees to use in their own empire building. During the Great Famine, there was more than enough food in Ireland to feed the entire country, but, again, the English exported it to feed themselves.
“We have always found the Irish a bit odd. They refuse to be English.” – Winston Churchill
But enough about the English, I’m here to celebrate the Irish.
Native Americans have a saying that human beings are born with two natural medicines: one is their laughter and the other their tears. The Irish are quick to cry when moved and no people have a better sense of humor. Their hearts are completely open. But they are lesser known for their contributions to the world. Let’s set the record straight.
Saving the manuscripts of antiquity
In 1995, Thomas Cahill wrote a marvelous book on Ireland’s enormous contribution to Western culture: How the Irish Saved Civilization (Hinges of History).
In a nutshell, the Roman Empire never bothered to conquer Ireland. Her inhabitants were deemed too wild and the country too poor to be worth the trip across the channel. Rome’s mistake and our blessing.
When the Roman Empire finally collapsed around the Fifth Century, the “Dark Ages” ensued and all of Europe fell into chaos. Learning, scholarship and culture disappeared. The libraries were burned, but some of the ancient manuscripts made their way to Ireland.
Around the same time, St. Patrick converted much of Ireland to Christianity and founded monasteries. The monks created the magnificent artistry of the Book of Kells and took it upon themselves to copy the Greek and Latin manuscripts that would otherwise have been lost. By the time Europe regained its senses, the Irish monasteries had preserved the great writings so that civilization could pick up where it had left off.
Here are some more little-known contributions of the Irish:
- Flavored potato chips [Joseph Murphy in 1954]
- Soda water [Robert Perceival 1800]
- The first successful submarine [John Philip Holland 1881]
- The modern tractor [Harry Ferguson]
- The tank [Walter Gordon Wilson – 1911]
- First guided missile [Louis Brennan]
- Radiation treatment for cancer [co-pioneered by Irishman John Joly]
- First to artificially split the atom [Earnest Walton]
- Binaural [double earpiece] stethescope [Athur Leared 1851]
- Seismology [Robert Mallet]
- Steam turbine [Sir Charles Parsons]
- The ejector seat [Sir James Martin]
- Hypodermic syringe [Francis Rynd in 1844]
- Nickel-zinc rechargeable battery [Dr. James Drumm in 1930]
- Cure for leprosy [Vincent Barry]
- Color photography [John Joly – 1894]
- Modern Chemistry [Robert Boyle 1661]
- Guinness Beer [Arthur Guinness]
- Irish whiskey
- Irish dancing [who would have thought that the Irish step dancing of Riverdance would become the most successful dance show in history, with over 20 million tickets sold worldwide].
Irish Phrases that have made their way into our culture:
Kaybash: to end something by putting the kaybash on it. The origin may refer to the black cap worn by a judge when passing a death sentence.
Tying the knot: this term for getting married comes from the Celtic tradition of handfasting where the bride and groom’s hands were tied together as a symbol of their commitment. Ancient Celtic marriages were one-year commitments with optional renewal. Smart!
Paddy wagon: horse-drawn wagon used by police to cart drunks off to jail. “paddy” was a derogatory term for Irish who came to America.
Taking the cake: someone would always bring a cake to a local dance; a winner would be declared as having won the cake and would then share it with everyone else.
Luck of the Irish: this started out as an insult, referring to the bad luck the Irish seemed to have following the potato famine. Over time it changed to represent the good luck of a charmed, happy group of people.
An Irish prayer:
“May those that love us, love us. And for those that don’t love us, may God turn their hearts. And if He can’t turn their hearts, may He turn their ankles, so we’ll know them by their limping.”