Several years ago, I had the great privilege of spending Saint Patrick’s Day in beautiful Ireland. I was touring the country with a group screening the film Amazing Grace, and since I had written two books on John Newton–John Newton, the Angry Sailor and Once Blind: The Life of John Newton–I was invited to go along.
A fellow who sat behind me on the bus going north from the Dublin airport to Derry peered at me through narrowed eyes and asked, “Are you Catholic or Protestant?”
I had already been warned to watch out for that question. It wasn’t really a religious query. It was political, and it could be dangerous.
“Christian,” I mumbled as I buried my face in my book.
During my week in Ireland, I crisscrossed the country by car, a different city every day. On March 17, I noticed with stereotypical surprise that not one person was wearing green. “So, how do you celebrate Saint Patrick’s Day here?” I asked a group of locals.
“We watch the telly,” one said. “The Saint Patrick’s Day parade from New York.” The others nodded their agreement.
“Do you eat your dinner of corned beef and cabbage before the parade or after?” I asked.
They stared at me gap-mouthed.
“What’s corned beef, Mum?” a little girl whispered to her mother. Her mother told her to never mind, that it was not worth discussing, let alone eating. In fact, not one person in the group would admit to ever having tasted it. Cabbage was okay, they allowed, but only with lamb. Not corned beef. Goodness, no!
Finally someone asked me the question they were all obviously dying to have answered: “Why would you eat corned beef and cabbage?”
“Lots of us do in America,” I said a bit defensively. “All the grocery stores run big specials on it. We eat it so we can celebrate our Irishness. It’s what we do on Saint Patrick’s Day!”
After a week of criss-crossing Ireland, I settled on the plane from Dublin to Atlanta in my aisle seat. But when I glanced over at my row mate–a rather hefty teenage boy–I saw that he was crammed into the window seat with his leg was awkwardly propped sideways to accommodate a plaster cast that encased his leg, foot to his thigh.
“It’s a long flight,” I said. “Let’s trade seats.”
He smiled appreciatively. His name was Sean, he told me, and he was nineteen years old. He was on his way to Florida, and he hoped to stay there with relatives. Before the plan even left the tarmac, he asked, “Are you Catholic or Protestant?”
“Sean, my lad,” I said with a sigh, “it’s a good thing we have nine hours together. What I am is a Christian. But you are on your way to the U.S., so we do need to talk!”
I have so many good memories of Ireland, but what I cherish most is that long flight home. I really enjoyed it. I hope Sean did, too.
“I believe in the sun when it’s not shining, I believe in love when I feel it not, I believe in God even when he is silent.”