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Fifth Sunday in Lent - March 17, 2024

Updated: Mar 23

I am going to start by breaking a rule. Happy St. Patrick’s Day! This is a holy day that I never miss. You would not miss it either if you, like me, attended St. Patrick’s Episcopal Day School in Washington, DC, for your elementary school education. Imagine the horror experienced by a young child as he arrives at the start of school to see all the green worn by his classmates and the older and younger students, only to look down and see not a snip of green on himself. Children have their own rules, and they enforce them ruthlessly. After a long day suffering the pinches from every human 12 years or younger, this absent-minded student learns to mark March 17th on the calendar.

It is said that on St. Patrick’s Day, everyone is Irish. That was certainly true for us at my beloved school. You could not excuse yourself from the green clothing rule. Lame attempts to claim green underwear spared you nothing. How much more fun it was to obey the rule than to ignore or challenge it.

My own interest in Ireland came from more than just my time at a school named after its patron saint. In our years in Washington, my parents kept an extensive vinyl record collection. They freely and kindly allowed me to play their records. My parents were not rock ‘n rollers. An album entitled The Greatest Hits of 1812 was one of their favorite albums. But they had a great collection of foreign and folk music in addition to classical music. I explored those albums, and there discovered the Clancy Brothers.

The Clancy Brothers—Paddy, Tom, and Liam—along with their friend Tommy Makem, all Irishmen, got me hooked on Irish music. In the early 1960’s, they were featured on the Ed Sullivan show, played on television for President John F. Kennedy, and performed at Carnegie Hall. While much of their music was folk music from other places or were songs of the sea, their music at its core was the sound of Ireland.

Irish music can be wildly happy, funny, or sad. Much of it, especially the sad, revolves around Irish freedom from British rule. Songs of Irish nationalism stress loyalty and sacrifice. Perhaps most poignant were songs like Kevin Barry, which describes the infamous execution of an eighteen-year old IRA man. In the song, the night before he died, Kevin Barry refused an offer to save his life by turning traitor. 

These songs had a profound effect on their listeners, joining them as a community, binding them to the cause, giving them an identity to which they could cling in the worst of times. In his autobiography, Angela’s Ashes, Frank McCourt described his growing up in Ireland. Frank’s father was deeply flawed, a man who loved his family but struggled with how to show that love, a man who would drink his wages on payday before arriving home penniless. 

When Frank and his brother Malachy were still young boys, without warning, their seven-week old sister died silently in the night. Already overwhelmed with four other children, the parents broke down. Frank’s mother, Angela, confined herself to bed, leaving the boys Frank and Malachy to feed and change the diapers of their baby siblings as best as they could. As soon as the doctor left their house, Frank’s father told his son that he was going out for cigarettes. Frank wrote,

Two days later Dad returns from his cigarette hunt. It’s the middle of the night but he gets Malachy and me out of the bed. He has the smell of the drink on him. He has us stand at attention in the kitchen. We are soldiers. He tells us we must promise to die for Ireland.

We will, Dad, we will.

All together we sing Kevin Barry. 

Although scolded by a neighbor for the noise (“You can teach them to die for Ireland in the daytime….”), alcohol and love of country are how Frank’s father dealt with the soul-destroying loss of his baby girl. Before letting the boys go back to bed, he asked them,