Do You Have Irish Blood?
by G.G. Vandagriff
If so, the rest of us owe you a debt we can never repay!
As I have worked on extracting records of 19th and early 20th century Massachusetts, I have come across a portion of the masses of Irish men and women who immigrated to the United States at that time. They always had the most menial of jobs–laborer, brakeman, bricklayer. They frequently died young from tuberculosis or cirrhosis of the liver. From Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes, we know a little of what it was to be poor and to be Irish.
And yet, how many of us have been captivated by a haunting Celtic ballad produced by an eerie, angel-voiced Irishwomen, listened enthralled to the otherworldly music of a hammer dulcimer well-played, or been entirely carried away by the art and masterful precision of Irish dancers as they use their tap shoes to beat out unison rhythms on the floor while holding their hands stiffly at their sides?
Clearly, there is something magical about the Irish character, despite the poverty, the disease, and the weakness for drink. In his book, How the Irish Saved Civilization, Thomas Cahill puts it this way, “The word Irish is seldom coupled with the word civilization. When we think of peoples as civilized or civilizing, the Egyptians and the Greeks, the Italians and the French, the Chinese and the Jews may all come to mind. The Irish are wild, feckless, and charming, or morose, repressed, and corrupt, but not especially civilized.”
However, as it happens, it is to this people that we owe the preservation of the Bible and all that we now call the beginnings of Western Civilization.
The Irish are descendants of the Celts–a nomadic people who did not distinguish themselves by their “civilized” behavior. They went into battle with their hair and faces dyed blue, they had no written language for many years, and their origins are shrouded in myth. As Jean Markale states in her book, The Celts, “Having risen apparently from nowhere, in around the 5th or 6th centry BC to conquer the whole of Western Europe before being beaten back into obscurity [Ireland, Wales, and Scotland] by the combined pressure of the Romans, Germans, and Christians, the Celts offer us a most strange and perplexing subject for investigation. It appears that the Celtic peoples and everything about them has vanished and yet they have made a unique and profound contribution to later events, even though their influence has rarely been visible in the mainstream of European thought.”
One of the myths about the Celts is that they are the “lost blood” of Israel. Certainly, they started out in the right place–the middle of nowhere. We know from the Bible dictionary that the Ten Lost Tribes were carried away captive into Assyria about 725 B.C. Nothing more is heard of them. Could they have emerged two hundred years later as a people known as the Celts? Perhaps someday we will know the answer to that. For present purposes, it is enough to realize that these people had a unique role to play in history.
After having been driven by the Romans to the edge of the world (Ireland, Wales, Scotland), they set up a crude civilization which never was altered by Roman ways. When the empire fell, the Celtish Irish and their Stone Age culture came into its own. As Thomas Cahill puts it, “. . . as all through Europe matted, unwashed barbarians descended on the Roman cities, looting artifacts and burning books, the Irish, who were just learning to read and write, took up the great labor of copying all of Western literature–everything they could lay their hands on. These scribes then served as conduits through which the Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian cultures were transmitted to the tribes of Europe . . . “
As the rest of the Christian world fell to the barbarians, the knowledge of Christ would have forever been lost had it not been for the new converts of Ireland. St. Patrick, kidnapped as a young boy by the Irish, converted to Christianity and later became “virtually the first missionary Bishop” in history. Since the time of Paul, there had been no Christian missionaries. But, Patrick felt the call of a mission to the Irish strongly. As Cahill says, “In becoming an Irishman, Patrick wedded his world to theirs, his faith to their life… Patrick found a way of swimming down to the depths of the Irish psyche and warming and transforming Irish imagination–making it more humane and more noble while keeping it Irish.” Thus Ireland became an Island of Christianity in a pagan world. There is irony here. Originally the greatest of pagans themselves, the Celtic Irish embraced Christianity with all their souls and preserved it for the rest of the world–the only light for hundreds of years until the Restoration should dawn.
Though Cahill himself has little understanding of Mormons, his account of the Irish salvation of our Western Civilization is well worth reading. It should give those of us whose ancestors were always just thought of as “poor, working-class Irish”, a new way of looking at things. After all, as Paul said in Corinthians, “God hath chosen. . . the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty.” Simply put, we can never repay the Irish, except by giving them access to the entire Gospel which has finally been restored in all its glory. Seek out those Irish ancestors!!!
2001 Meridian Magazine. All Rights Reserved.