The first sprigs of green in fields remind us of the Emerald Isle and its patron saint, St. Patrick. He was one of the first missionaries to arrive in Ireland (Éire). He is reputed to have driven the snakes out, and he evidently didn’t care much for reptiles in general. Ireland remains reptile-free to this day.
Éire is sometimes unfairly dismissed as a small island of big talk. The talk began before recorded history, in an age when Irishmen expressed themselves by building stone monuments to gods and chieftains. At clan councils, robust men grew silent and listened intently as their tribe’s poet spoke words of praise and prophecy. Irishmens’ long-standing respect for well-chosen words probably made the writing profession appealing to native authors like Jonathan Swift, George Bernard Shaw, and William Butler Yeats.
In ancient Ireland, chieftains met regularly to feast and perform a boasting ritual. Each chieftain took a turn to tell of his abilities as a fighter and leader. The chiefs knew that watered-down rhetoric couldn’t inspire people in times of hardship or war. Bold words were needed.
Though England turned to Protestantism, Éire retained the Catholic faith. In skirmishes with England, Irishmen looked to the Catholic countries of Spain and France for assistance. England’s Queen Elizabeth I needed to protect English property in Ireland from attack, and also realized that Ireland might fall into Spanish hands. Elizabeth wanted loyal Englishmen to control Ireland, and sent her army to accomplish this.
In 1602, Blarney Castle became the site of a small victory of Irish eloquence over the British army. The Lord of Blarney, Cormac McCarthy, agreed to turn over the castle to English forces as part of a peace treaty. The English commander came to take possession of the castle several times, and each time McCarthy greeted him cordially and then hesitantly explained that a difficulty had arisen that would delay the hand-over for a few days. By the time the commander had had enough of McCarthy’s excuses, English officers were beginning to apply the term “blarney” to any insincere talk.
Outnumbered as they were, Irishmen persisted in taking back bits of their ancient prerogatives at any opportunity. Around 1650 they were crushed by Oliver Cromwell’s army and were stripped of political power—and Ireland’s best land. They could not worship openly, nor attend school, nor work in most trades.
Peasants eased their troubles by entertaining each other with stories about fairies who looked like little people. The fairies, called “the good people,” or “the gentry,” loved to sing and have parties. Dancing fairies caused whirlwinds, according to folklore. A few fairies were grumpy, including the leprechaun, who mended shoes for the other little people and was always concerned that someone might steal his gold.
Decades of oppression passed, interrupted by short-lived rebellions. Many poor families worked in their landlords’ fields to pay rent for their cottages and potato patches. Often they had no cash income, and used potatoes as a form of money. From 1845 to 1848, the Irish potato famine shocked the world and drove a million people from Ireland to seek a livelihood elsewhere. Many Irishmen went to America.
After the famine, citizens of England debated the justice of official policies toward Ireland. The Irish in America sent part of their pay home to political parties that promoted self-government. The Easter Uprising of 1916 followed a failed political agreement. At last in 1920 Ireland achieved its freedom after centuries of effort. The government of Ulster (Northern Ireland) refused to join the rest of the island and Ulster remains in the United Kingdom.
The history of Ireland continues, but the contribution of the Irish love of words to the people’s survival and ultimate triumph is worth celebrating.

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