First Word: The Things They Carried
“The Irish carry their culture around with them like snails with their houses on their backs.”
– Denis Clarke
Let me start with an apology. I’m sorry if some of your favorites are not on this list. I’m sorry that some of my own favorites are not on this list. Indeed, there are one or two on this list that I don’t think I would enjoy having a pint with. But overall I have to say that those profiled in the following pages are some of the noblest of our race. They have shown true grit, and compassion, and sheer genius in some cases. I believe that the microcosm of Irish America presented here – a snapshot of who we are as a people at the beginning of the 21st century – is a mosaic to be proud of.
Alison MacDonald Duncan of the Scottish National Party complained to me recently that, whereas the Scots seem to disappear into whatever place they find themselves, the Irish are one of the most visible ethnic groups. We refuse to lie quiet.
In olden days we built our houses in a circle so that we could converse over the half doors. That same half door when taken off the hinges served the purpose of being a platform to dance on. That humble platform generations later would launch onto the world stage the genius of Michael Flatley who has made it hip to be an Irish dancer.
In honoring Flatley – dancer, member of Mensa, world-champion flautist, who has inspired thousands of young dancers to follow his lead (three young Irish-American dancers were world champions in their categories last year) – we are reminded of the influence that Irish Americans have had, not only on American society, but in preserving Irish culture. Irish fiddler Liz Carroll out of Chicago, profiled in this issue, is a link to the musicians of the 50s such as Michael Coleman, whose recordings made in New York and Chicago made their way back to Ireland, influencing the style of play and even reviving Irish traditional music.
At this time of year especially, I recall the words of the late historian Denis Clarke, who said the Irish carry their culture around with them like snails with their houses on their backs.
And I think of those Irish carrying their music and dance with them into the mining camps and across the country as they built the railroads. Heirlooms to be passed down that didn’t take up space in travel trunks.
I like to think that these early Irish immigrants, having known life’s struggles, also passed down a compassionate heart. Certainly those involved in community and children’s issues, education, and public service exhibit some of the best traits of the Irish.
While those such as Super Bowl-winner John Lynch, and boxer “Irish” Mickey Ward remind us that the Irish once used sports to reach the first rung of the ladder. It’s the sort of thing that a writer such as Pete Hamill is wont to remind us.
And speaking of writers, those of you who read Tim O’Brien will recognize my headline as the title of a book of short stories that he wrote about his time serving in Vietnam. The story in this issue of John “Stork” Lynch, the young Air Force pilot, reminds us of all those young men and women in the military who are in our prayers. In our prayers, too, is Eileen Collins, who will command the next shuttle mission to space.
It wouldn’t be a Top 100 list without remembering those we lost: Doc. McFadden, who the last time I saw him was giving out free patches and encouraging people to give up smoking. Lucy Grealy was an intense, tiny package of bravery and determination. Richard Harris was always entertaining. And Rosemary Clooney, who, though ill, was still singing right up until the end. Their spirits live on.
Wishing you joy in your Irish heritage in this St. Patrick’s season, and always. ♦