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A Typical Irishman


Havre de Grace. -- Tomorrow is St. Patrick's Day, and so this is a good time to write about it, because no one's drunk yet.

It's probably unfair that so many of my memories of this particular holiday are related to alcohol, but I hasten to point out that this doesn't mean they're unpleasant, or that they reflect adversely upon those of Irish extraction. In fact, quite the reverse is true.

In Annapolis, where the General Assembly used to have a substantial representation of honorary Irish persons to go along with the handful who were of genuinely Celtic descent, it used to be considered traditional for legislators to go out on the town on the evening of March 17 and consume large quantities of green beer. Then both houses would dutifully reconvene for evening sessions, with predictable results.

On one such St. Patrick's evening session in the House of Delegates, tempers flared and language deteriorated, along with manners. It all grew so earthy that a colleague of mine at the House press table thought he should go down and add a few paragraphs to his report for the next day's paper. He mentioned that obscenity had broken out, and briefly explained why.

A little later, after he had returned to the House chamber, a messenger from the downstairs press room rushed up to him. "Your editors called," said the messenger. "They want you to dictate two paragraphs of obscenities." As I recall it, he cheerfully obliged.

Another time the CBS television serial "Lou Grant" did a St. Patrick's Day show about the Irish Republican Army stealing guns in Los Angeles and accidentally setting off a car bomb, killing a child. Though clearly presented as fiction, this was considered provocative in some quarters, and before the show was over, various Irish-sounding groups were issuing denunciations and demanding equal time.

Here in Baltimore, an earnest WMAR-TV news crew was sent out to gather more reaction from members of the victimized minority. The intention was to air their indignation live on the 11 o'clock news. Not unreasonably, the crew concluded that a good place to find representatives of the Irish point of view on the evening of St. Patrick's would be at certain neighborhood pubs.

But by the hour of 11, the opportunity for informed political discussion had been lost. The few celebrants who could still be ** dragged to the microphones were so incoherent that the reporter finally suggested to the studio that perhaps it was "too late for interviews," and that the Lou Grant rebuttals should come another day.

Irish politics have changed a bit since then, especially in the last year, and generally for the better. At the moment there is something like peace in Northern Ireland, and Sinn Fein's Gerry Adams is to take tea -- or something -- in the White House tomorrow with President Clinton. The British aren't especially happy about this, or about Mr. Adams' fund-raising efforts in the United States, but their complaints have been muted.

The current Irish dialogue would have been out of the question a few years back. Although the Protestant community in Northern Ireland is far from persuaded that it would be a good idea, serious discussions are taking place about the eventual creation of a united Ireland. And at the same time, Sinn Fein has agreed to discuss with the British the "decommissioning" of weapons in the IRA's considerable arsenal.

Whether either of those are attainable goals, no one knows, but at least nobody's dying while the talk goes on, and hope is slowly growing that the violence and bloody-mindedness are actually over.

In this country, meanwhile, we continue our long tradition of taking Irish issues and reducing them to trivia. What, in 1995, is the major St. Patrick's Day concern in certain major American cities? Is it the challenge of bringing Catholics and Protestants together for a harmonious Irish future? Not at all. It's whether gay and lesbian groups should be invited to march in the downtown parades.

Of course, that's politics, and politics, far more than alcohol, is an authentic Irish preoccupation.

In Boston, which is to Ireland what Quebec is to France, there's great embarrassment these days because the current mayor is of Italian background. But that may be rectified. The Boston Herald reported a few days ago that Congressman Joseph P. Kennedy II, whose great-grandfather was mayor, is showing some interest in the job, at least until his Uncle Ted's seat in the Senate is available.

Congressman Kennedy is surely proud of his Irish antecedents, as are many others whose connections are fainter. For being Irish is largely a state of mind. "I am a typical Irishman," said George Bernard Shaw, who was born in Dublin in 1856. "My ancestors came from Yorkshire."

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

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