By Bob Lyons
Saint Patrick’s Day celebrations showcase the imprint of the Irish around the world, but all that glitter and sparkle can mask the long-lasting contributions to western civilization which emanated from that small island off the edge of Europe.
Chicago's celebration of the legacy of Ireland begins Saturday, March 11 when 45 pounds of Eco-friendly vegetable green dye are poured into the Chicago River. At noon, grand marshal, Martin J. Healy, Jr., steps out to start the parade. The theme for the city's 62nd anniversary celebration, "Irish Immigration: A New World of Opportunity", echoes the chorus of Lin-Manuel Miranda's 'Hamilton': ''Immigrants. We get the job done. Look how far I come." On Sunday, the family-friendly South Side Irish Parade kicks off at noon led by Queen Maura Connors, a Beverly native.
Ireland’s contributions to the U.S. are grandly celebrated in New York when "The Fighting 69th" leads the oldest and largest parade in the world - begun March 17, 1762 - up Fifth Avenue. Dubliners will enjoy a four-day festival to honor Éire's patron saint.
When Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, the Prime Minister of Ireland, went over to Berlin to collect his European of the Year award in 2012, he reminded the Germans of the role played by Ireland during the Dark Ages when Irish missionaries roamed the continent, spreading “the light of learning” in Europe. The Taoiseach hinted as to how the Irish had bailed out Germany and that it was time for Chancellor Angela Merkle to reciprocate. He told her that covering the Irish bank debt would be a good place to start and did get her backing for the EU bailout loans.
It is only when we scroll through the centuries that we discover those Irish torch-bearers who contributed to the cornerstone of learning by founding schools of unspeakable excellence in Europe.
The historical record documents that the Irish provided a series of intellectual and cultural leaders who guided the re-emergence of Europe from the dark ages after the Roman Empire had collapsed in the 5th century. The scholars and missionaries after Saint Patrick's arrival in the 5th century, especially Columba and Columbanus, embraced learning in all its forms from the classical pagan past to those of their new-found religion. This fueled their mission to establish hundreds of centers of learning in Ireland and England and on the Continent.
Cong Abbey in county Mayo, founded in the 7th century and rebuilt in 1120, hosted over 3,000 students and scholars who studied history, poetry, music, sculpture and illumination of books; its craftsmen were celebrated for their metal work, engraving, and harp making.
In the 7th century, the Irish monks started another revolution: they put spaces between the words on a page for the first time so that all people could learn to read. Reading was no longer a privileged exercise for the trained literati. The monks presented their learning and sacred texts in magnificently illuminated manuscripts and books. Libraries were born. Literacy was made possible.
The sounds of Ireland have been resonating for centuries. The Irish promoted song and music in the rhythms of their daily life and made the gift of music notation possible. The composition of chant neumes by Irish monks in the 9th century would blossom into modern music notation in later centuries in Italy and France.
Although the artifacts from this medieval Hibernian golden age are well preserved in the great libraries of Europe, the Irish legacy of learning is less well known in our digitized world. Nevertheless, every time you read the newspaper or turn the pages of a book or flip through a magazine, and every time you write an e-mail or tweet or when you enjoy the pleasing sounds of a live orchestra playing notes from a music score by a long dead composer---all of these experiences are made possible because of the invention and creativity of medieval educators with an Irish accent who believed that learning and literacy were vitally important for a society to liberate the human spirit.
Kenneth Clark, the British art historian summed it up: “By means of the Carolingian Renaissance, Western civilization survived by the skin of its teeth. Without the Irish, it would not have survived at all.”
G.K. Chesterton was wrong when he said: "The great Gaels of Ireland are the men that God made mad, for all their wars are merry and all their songs are sad." The great Gaels of Ireland gave Western civilization something else: the tools to craft words and to read and to tell stories, and to make notes and to sing songs. The imprint and sound of their legacy in learning is something to celebrate and parade about, even to dye a river green.