Tom Foreman | BIO
Reporter's Note: Despite all the troubles facing the world, St. Patrick’s Day has once again rolled around. And with a name like Obama, you can just imagine the president must be as excited by that as he is by my daily letters.
Dear Mr. President,
On a flight back to DC once I was seated next to a born-in-Ireland-lived-there-all-his-life Irishman, and we had a lovely conversation. Of course I asked him how many leprechauns he had personally seen, and where he keeps his shillelagh, which oddly enough he seemed to take some offense at; but once we crossed those cultural gulfs, we had a good chat.
(This, I may note, will come as a surprise to anyone who has ever flown with me, because I rarely talk to anyone in transit. As I see it, the silent negotiations over a shared armrest are as deep as I want those relationships to go.)
Anyway, at one point he said to me, “I’m surprised by how many Americans like to claim Irish descent, even when it seems a bit of a stretch.” I’ve noticed that phenomenon, too. It’s especially prevalent on St. Patrick’s Day, but you can hear such salutes to lineage all year long.
Some of us, including me, actually have pretty strong Irish roots in our tangled family trees. But others seem to cling to the most distant threads of DNA as proof of their Irish origins. I can’t blame them. For starters, the Irish truly are wonderful and interesting people who have played a huge role in the history of the world. (Check out How the Irish Saved Civilization if you want a fun read.) But there is more than that to the American love of all-things-Irish.
I think much of it is because we have an idealized (and, accordingly, mythological) view of the Irish that fits nicely into our image of ourselves as Americans: fiercely independent, hard working, fun-loving, and willing to take on the toughest foes. We like the idea that we trace our history to decent, laboring folks, who not only feel a responsibility to their families and communities, but who are also willing to fight for principle.
I once heard a joke: “An Irishman is always willing to fight for a cause, even if he has no idea what it is.” More seriously, I think we have a popular sense that our Irish-version-of Magnanimous-Man is willing to risk his very life for even a losing cause, if he perceives it to be right. And as the old saying goes, maybe the only causes really worth fighting for are the losing ones.
So may God bless the Irish in us all. Heaven knows we need people who will fight the long fight for good, even in a world where so much, sometimes, seems as if it is going bad.
Happy St. Patrick’s Day.
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