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This St. Patrick’s week, after the merrymakers to the Chicago Loop watch as the Chicago River turns green and the St. Patrick's Day Parades march through Grant Park or the South Side,  many Irish Americans might remain challenged by what Seamus Heaney would call “a search for images and symbols adequate to our predicament.” Looking at the state of our democracy today, many Americans raise the same question Benjamin Franklin was asked in 1787 at the Constitutional Convention:  “Well Doctor what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?”  Franklin replied, “A republic . . . if you can keep it.”

Although the legacy of the Irish is celebrated March 17th  around the world, few might know that it is also a legal holiday in Boston called “Evacuation Day”. Therein lays a direct link between the two March 17th celebrations.  St. Patrick bloodlessly liberated the people of the Emerald Isle from the religion of their pagan Celtic ancestors. Gen. George Washington’s troops, perched up on Dorchester Heights on March 17, 1776, liberated the New England colonies from their hated occupier. After the evacuation of the British from Boston Harbor, a groundswell towards independence emerged. On July 4th the Second Continental Congress issued its ringing Declaration of Independence. The structure of our democracy took final shape when the Founding Fathers crafted a Constitution as the “supreme law of the United States Empowered with the sovereign authority of the people.”

There are two critical links between Ireland and America: the thousands of Irish immigrants who found refuge in America both before and after the American Revolution, and the identical quest for political independence from England by both the Americans and Irish alike.

The Irish -- citizens for centuries -- were forced to become subjects when their sovereignty was usurped by a king in England. Native Irish would spend the next 700 years trying to regain their status and country as citizens. Jimmy Cagney’s couplet superbly articulates the British policy towards its neighbors:
 
Elizabeth I, the queen called virgin,
Set up the haves and have-nots
By usurping the lands of the old Irish clans
And gave them to Anglos and Scots.
                                                 
Essex and Raleigh and Cromwell,                                              
All Englishmen of distinction,
Had an overall plan for the old Irish clans       
And the overall plan was extinction.
 
When the colonists became citizens of their own country, the cause of America in 1776 would become the cause of Ireland. The solid link between Ireland and America was dramatically increased in the nineteenth century as hundreds of thousands of Irish fled to America to escape poverty, famine, and oppression in Ireland as did my own ancestors.

The founding fathers and mothers of Ireland were energized by America’s quest for independence. The 1916 Irish Proclamation of Independence rang out with the familiar words and resonances of our 1776 Declaration: “supported by her exiled children in America….We declare the right of the people of Ireland to the ownership of Ireland and to the unfettered control of Irish destinies, to be sovereign and indefeasible.” The Irish Free State was born after a successful war of independence in 1921 and the Irish became citizens once again in their own land.

The digital streamcasting of imagery of our present dysfunctional Congress and a morally compromised Chief Executive causes many citizens to struggle to find the words and images that are adequate to express our current predicament. The insight of Alexis de Tocqueville, French historian and political writer who spent several years observing our democracy can be read today with the same freshness and clarity as when first published in his Democracy in America (1835-40).  He believed that a society, properly structured, could hope to retain liberty for its citizens. But, after reminding us: “There are many men of principle in both parties in America, but there is no party of principle”, de Tocqueville added this challenge: “Everybody feels the evil, but no one has courage or energy enough to seek the cure.”

The Irish poet, Brendan Kennelly in his poem, Begin,  provides a verbal image adequate to our current predicament:

Though we live in a world that dreams of ending
that always seems about to give in
something that will not acknowledge conclusion
insists that we forever begin.
 
In our March 17th dual celebrations of the legacies of these historic transatlantic links, it would not be a strange way to acknowledge the complexities of our entangled history with Ireland if we hoist a toast to both those rebel Irish and revolutionary Yankee patriots and declare: I will act to begin again to keep this Republic, and I pray that no one who serves that cause will dishonour it by cowardice, inhumanity, or rapine.

Robert Lyons of Kennebunk, Maine has taught Irish studies in the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute over the past 21 years at the University of Southern Maine, Tufts University, Dartmouth College and, while living in Ireland, at University College Cork. His County Waterford ancestors established a farm in Bridgeport in the 1850s.

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