My Irish is rusty so the best I can do phonetically is “Gah nigh-ree un bough-er lat.”
Translation: “May the road rise to meet you.” Or, better yet, may you have a successful life journey.
In case you haven’t noticed, Friday is St. Patrick’s Day.
St. Paddy’s is a big deal on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, where locals have paraded for nearly half a century, throwing green beads, green bagels and such Irish stew ingredients as cabbage, carrots and potatoes to expectant spectators. The 2017 Irish season has five processions, three this weekend.
Even before the modern parades in Waveland, Biloxi, Pass Christian, Long Beach and Pascagoula, our Coast and most other American communities took to the streets on their own. They pinned on the American version of shamrocks, raised a glass or two to the Emerald Isle and talked like they had kissed the Blarney Stone.
100 years ago
One hundred years ago, this newspaper reported that all local “patriotic sons” were celebrating because “everybody is an Irishman on St. Patrick’s Day, no matter to what nationality he belongs, and the shamrock and green are in much evidence today.”
St. Paddy’s Day, probably more than any other widespread cultural holiday, is a celebration of America’s immigration tradition.
But it wasn’t always an easy journey down the road of life for these immigrants who came in waves starting in the 18th century. A long-ago friend named McGonigle told me stories of how his Boston grandfather had to overcome hateful “Irish Need Not Apply” signs.
Irish influence on the Coast
Indentured Irish servants are an important chapter in the Coast’s 19th century progress, building railroads, working the fields and in hotels, attending to the wealthy. Later, they would become — and their descendants still are — Coast leaders.
Waveland is credited as the first Coast city to host an annual St. Paddy’s parade, this year its 53rd.
The Coast’s Irishness was rarely showcased until well into the 20th century. I didn’t attend a Coast Irish parade until I returned to this newspaper in 1979, after completing a reporting internship here and first working in the Washington, D.C., area. That year I took an afternoon break to attend the Hibernia Marching Society parade.
In those days it was a foot parade that wound around Biloxi’s Vieux Marche Mall. As a first-timer, I was hooked by the Mardi Gras-ish throwing of beads and other interesting green stuff. I had no inkling that, a decade later, I would become that Irish heritage society’s youngest and first female president.
After its infancy, the Hibernia parade grew too big for Vieux Marche, so it moved to the streets and added motorized floats. At the request of locals who couldn’t break up a work day for a parade, it also changed to the weekend closest to the actual patron saint day.
In those early years, to pay for the insurance and all the other costs of staging a big parade, we Hibernians pedaled hot baked Irish potatoes stuffed with a crab cheese sauce. Talk about mixing the flavors of Coast heritage.
Hibernia owned a small “potato booth” on wheels that we took to Coast festivals to hawk our popular potatoes. I remember Jeff O’Keefe (that’s the senior Jeffery of the large Coast O’Keefe clan) and I competing to sell the most, working the festival crowds with a sample potato raised high in one hand. What fun, even when Jeff’s booming voice outdid mine every time.
Irish here and ‘there’
I doff my hat to Hibernia, the Waveland Civic Association and all Coast groups that continue to sponsor St. Paddy’s processions. Whether they do it because these gatherings are just plain fun or because they want to celebrate Irish heritage doesn’t matter. They are doing it.
I’ve not forgotten my encounter with a purist Irish student at University College Cork in southern Ireland. When I was on sabbatical there in the mid-1990s as a Rotary Ambassadorial Scholar, my accent always gave me away. But I certainly looked Irish, as dictated by family Celtic genes that come from both my Mom’s Murray side and my Dad’s Cajun side.
“You silly Americans,” he scoffed at me at a student union gathering, “celebrating St. Patrick’s Day with green beer and corned beef and your version of Irish music.” The crux of his admonishment was that we Americans should be ashamed of silly-a-fying Irish heritage.
On the contrary
Had I better command of the Irish language, I would have answered “a mhalairt ar fad,” “on the contrary.” Why not appreciate that Americans continue to celebrate our Irishness but in a uniquely American way that has spread to other developed countries? Instead of being quick on my feet I stared at him in disbelief and my face turned 40 shades of red, no thanks to those vintage Irish genes.
I wonder what he thought two years later when Dublin’s River Liffey was dyed green? Did he know that the tradition of St. Paddy’s parades started eons ago in Ireland, and that plenty of Irish pubs now serve green stout. As for corned beef, had he never eaten Cork’s famous spiced beef?
My lasting impression of this cultural purist was that his skin was as fair and his hair as red as mine. But unlike his Irish temper, my culturally diluted American temper was held in polite verbal check.
To him and to all others proud of our roots, no matter how we choose to celebrate them, “Go raibh an ghaoth an go brách ag do chúl.” May the wind always be at your back!
Kat Bergeron, a veteran feature writer specializing in Gulf Coast history and sense of place, is retired from the Sun Herald. She writes the Mississippi Coast Chronicles column as a freelance correspondent. Reach her at BergeronKat@gmail.com or at Southern Possum Tales, P.O. Box 33, Barboursville VA 22923.