Thursday, October 24, 2013

Only the soon-to-be-extinguished bonfire left of Ireland's Halloween traditions

Irish Halloween bonfire - note the wooden pallets, always a favorite
with kids at this time of year.
{Photo: thanks to}

It's Halloween season in America and I do mean season. The day I remember as a kid has exploded into a massive season of Halloween-themed celebration.

Where I grew up - north of Albany, NY - Houses are decorated as if it's Christmas and those decorations are up for a month. I guess the cardboard pumpkins on the windows and skeleton on the front door, taped up on the 29th of October, are insufficient to meet the modern American family's need to express its enthusiasm for Halloween.

There are also 'haunted hayrides' and, apparently, every kid has to visit a pumpkin patch these days.

Then there are the stores. They are overflowing with candy, store-bought costumes (adult as well as children sizes), decorations, greeting cards - who sends a Halloween card? - and, of course, pumpkins. Every fast food joint has a pumpkin flavored something or other. Pumpkin coffee? Eh, no thanks.

The thing is, none of this is in the least bit surprising. That people are putting up lights and inflatable vampires is a harmless, if overdone, effort to make things bright and fun for kids. I do wonder if the over-supervised kids of today have anywhere near the fun we had, but these things are hard to gauge.

Slightly more surprising is that it's nearly exactly the same in Ireland. It wasn't always like that. It wasn't even vaguely like that.

When I first arrived in Ireland Halloween was barely a blip. Young kids got dressed up - in whatever their mothers could find in the house - and went to a few doors asking "Any apples or nuts?" That's what they got too. Apples and nuts.

There was no candy. There were no store-bought costumes. There were no decorations. There were no pumpkins.

That's all gone now. In 20 years the American Halloween has become Ireland's Halloween. Kids go door-to-door in store-bought costumes, ringing doorbells on decorated houses, declaring (more than asking) "Trick or treat!" all in the expectation of romping home with bags full of candy. The kids are older too - often 12+. (Substituting candy for apples probably explains that.)

And there are pumpkins. Everywhere. You can get them in the supermarket and your coffee!

One of the better suburban Halloween scenes.

Yup, Ireland's Halloween is just about indistinguishable from America's except for one last vestige of the old customs - the bonfire.

The bonfire on Halloween in Ireland is an ancient tradition, but the bonfire isn't so much dying out as being snuffed out. The fire authorities are doing all they can to discourage the continuation of this tradition and I don't really blame them.

Kids gather up all sorts of junk - wooden pallets are a particular favorite - for weeks in advance of Halloween. Old mattresses and even car tires are added to the giant piles. I'm sure that in the past the bonfires were much smaller simply because people threw away so much less, but these days they're huge and dangerous.

On the October 21 Dublin City Council announced that they had seized over 500 tons of pallets, tires and other junk destined for bonfires. That's ten days before Halloween and that's only what they've found. What's not found is probably far greater because kids are on to the adults. They gather and hide this stuff as if it's gold dust, waiting for Halloween night to pile it up and light it on fire.

Of course it isn't just the fire authorities who worry about these bonfires. In my neighborhood parents keep a watchful eye for any hint of a bonfire. None of us wants them, even those who grew up with the tradition. They all seem to accept that today's bonfires are just out of hand. Nobody wants to be downwind of burning tires or mattresses.

I'm with them. I want to see the bonfire disappear. It's against my nature, but I'm with the forces of modernity and keen to see this ancient practice vanish.

** Traditional Irish Halloween foods such as the Barm Brack and Colcannon haven't gone away. Fortunately.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

University of Notre Dame - the "Fighting Irish" now and forever

Let's get one thing straight right off: the name "Fighting Irish" is non-negotiable. Notre Dame was, is and must remain the "Fighting Irish." The PC brigade cannot be allowed to change that.

There has been a lot of hoopla lately about the Washington Redskins' name. Is the name Redskins based on racial stereotypes? Certainly. But is it insulting? Maybe it is, maybe it isn't. The name was originally chosen by the Boston (yes, Boston) NFL franchise because there was a local Major League baseball team called the Braves. (Yes, Boston Braves. Atlanta came later.)

So the owner was only doing as so many business leaders have done before: copying a successful model. With hindsight he could have chosen a less racially insensitve name, but he certainly didn't mean it as an insult. No owner would want the players and fans to feel anything but pride in their team's name.

The name and the logo were chosen to invoke a certain spirit, the spirit of a warrior people. By choosing the name 'Redskins' the owner was saying, 'We want our players to show the same indomitable spirit on the gridiron as the Indians showed on the battlefield.'

I don't think that's insulting, but I haven't seen the Redskins play in over 20 years. I have no idea how that name and logo are employed and deployed by the club.

In fairness to the PC brigade the name Redskins does 'sound' awful, especially to our ├╝ber-sensitive racially tuned ears. And, let's face it, the name 'Redskins' was neither chosen nor adopted by Native Americans.

The same is not true of "Fighting Irish." The name goes back to the Civil War, when it was used to describe the Irish Brigade. The name "Fighting Irish" had nothing to do with drinking or loutishness. It was a compliment, one that said, "These men are resolute, bold, courageous ... admirable. We're glad they're on our side." That was BIG for the Irish in America at that time.

One of those Fighting Irish was Father William Corby, chaplain to the Irish Brigade. Fr Corby, who was recommended for a Medal of Honor for his service during the war, became President of Notre Dame after the war. The fact that Corby was known as "The Fighting Chaplain" and was well known for his Irish Brigade service may be the source for the name "Fighting Irish" coming to be associated with Notre Dame. Maybe. Nobody knows.

How Notre Dame became the "Fighting Irish" is lost to time, but by the 1920s the team was known as the "Fighting Irish" and their fans were more than just their students and alumni. As Paul Gallico wrote before a Notre Dame–Army game in New York during the 1920s:

This is the annual gathering of that amazing clan of self-appointed Notre Dame alumni which will whoop and rage and rant and roar through our town from sunup until long after sundown tomorrow in honor of a school to which they never went.

Those are the Subway Alumni - unique in college sports. And why? What caused this phenomenon? Why the allegiance? The name is the key: these people who never went to college, who only hoped and prayed that their children or grandchildren would have such an opportunity were loyal to the name, to the "Fighting Irish."

I suspect that if I hated Notre Dame I'd want to see the nickname changed. Not because "Fighting Irish" was an insult to the Irish, but rather because I'd think Notre Dame unworthy of such a name. The name "Fighting Irish" is one that should be spoken in reverence. Notre Dame is fortunate to have had their playing teams dubbed with so noble a moniker.

The only way I'd want to see Notre Dame change their nickname is if the university proved itself unworthy of the name. And how will I know when that day's arrived? I'll know if they don't shout down those who demand a change. That will be the moment.

If those who run Notre Dame can't muster the will, the courage, the stomach to withstand the threats of the PC bullies, if they're too lily-livered to stand up and fight for the name "Fighting Irish"  I'll know, indeed we'll all know - Notre Dame is no longer worthy of its nickname.

Until that day we root for the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame. If that dark day should ever come we'll have to find a new home for the "Fighting Irish."

Go Irish. Go Fighting Irish.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Northern Irish town celebrates native son ... the man who burned Washington

Painting of the White House in flames, August 1814.

There is a conference over the weekend of October 18-20 based around the life of 19th Century British General Robert Ross, who was from County Down. Ross is a central character in one of the most famous incidents in American history yet very few Americans know about him.

It was Ross who led the British Army into Washington DC in 1814 and, as I learned in school, "burned the White House." It wasn't just the White House, though. Ross's troops set fire to the buildings that housed the Congress, to the Treasury building and essentially all public buildings, except for the Patent Office. Private property was generally not touched.

The burning of the capital city is a pretty shameful affair and it's no wonder that it is generally glossed over, save for a few lines about Dolley Madison's heroic efforts to save the portrait of George Washington. So it's understandable if Robert Ross's name is an unknown to most Americans. If his name were known it would probably be reviled.

Still Ross is probably the greatest enemy of the United States to ever come out of Ireland. He set out to humiliate the Americans and he succeeded. His motivation for wanting to humiliate the United States was probably part British chauvinism and part revenge for the Americans' burning of York (now Toronto), which was the capital of Upper Canada at the time.

Ross of Bladensburg¹ arms granted to family
of Gen.Ross. Note Army Gold Cross medal
& US flag on broken staff.
{Crest & Caption thanks to John McCavitt}
The capture and burning of Washington may have been the high water mark of Ross's career. Three weeks later he was dead, killed by a sniper during the (ultimately unsuccessful) attack on Baltimore (see Key, Francis Scott).

While at first it seemed something of an odd idea to me as an American to use "the most humiliating episode in American history" in a bid to woo tourists to County Down, specifically Rostrevor, the more I thought about it the more I found myself saying, "Sure, why not?" An awful lot of water has passed under the bridge in the 199 years since Washington was burned. Besides, it's just history. {I know what you're thinking - nothing is "just history" in Ireland - but we'll leave that alone for now.}

Thus the conference later this month to promote the life of Robert Ross. It's not just about Robert Ross either. Local man and Ross expert John McCavitt* (@) is on a one-man mission to spread the word about Ross, but also to discover and pass on the stories of all the Irish and those of Irish descent who played a role in the War of 1812 on both sides.

Look, I know the war of 1812 is not one that fires the imagination, at least not in America (see Canada. Maybe?). In Ireland or Britain it's hardly known (and the name "War of 1812" for a war that lasted 3 years? Source of mirth.) If you have an interest in history, especially the history of the Irish in America then head to Rostrevor for the conference. The line-up of speakers looks pretty good and if the weather's half-way decent that area is one of the prettiest in Ireland.

* McCavitt is also Convenor of this month's conference.

¹  Bladensburg refers to Bladensburg, MD where the Ross's British troops routed the Americans leaving the road to Washington wide open.