I still remember that St. Patrick's Day trying very hard not to think of the Catholic publican, Sean Byrne, and his brother, Brendan, who had been shot to death, at point blank range, in that very place. To this day, The Wayside Halt lingers in a distant corner of my consciousness, refining my sense of who I am. I learned fairly recently, that one of my father's friends had suggested they call into the pub that night in 1974, for a quick pint, since it was on the road home. Granted, the “quick pint” is something of a paradox back home, and because dad was in a rush to complete his bread deliveries before dark that Friday night, he declined. And, before he reached a neighboring town, the harrowing word had arrived that within the previous hour, Loyalist paramilitaries had barged into the Wayside Halt, and shot at point-blank range, the Byrne brothers. Other pub owners in the Ballymena area had been attacked, their places of business vandalized because they had decided to remain open during the United Workers Council Strike of 1974.
Somehow, over a decade later, Mrs. Byrne had kept going, and on St. Patrick’s Day, she outdid herself, with a giant pot of Irish stew, the likes of which I defy you to find Stateside. Bland to the American taste-buds, I’m sure, but for us, when combined with an aromatic turf fire, a hot Powers whiskey, and someone like Big Micky playing "The Lonesome Boatman" on a tin whistle in the back bar, it was big and bold in flavor. Unforgettable. On such a night, we basked in our Irish identity. We knew who we were.
You are unlikely to find me at the St. Patrick’s Day Parade and Faire in Phoenix Arizona, especially on a 90 degree day, but you might just find me out by the swimming pool with the unlikely sounds of Planxty and Christy Moore filling my backyard and Edna O’Brien’s "Saints and Sinners" in hand.
So if you have an hour or two to be Irish this upcoming St. Patrick's Day, why don't you dip your toes in any of the following:
1. Planxty Live 2004
“When some 12,000 people poured into Vicar St in Dublin and the Glór Irish Music Centre in Ennis, County Clare for Planxty’s first live dates in well over twenty years, it became apparent that these concerts were being celebrated not just by an audience of veteran folk music aficionados, but equally by a whole new generation of younger fans who previously could only dream of how Planxty sounded in the flesh. How beautiful it was to watch sons and daughters with mothers and fathers joined in mutual appreciation of these four musicians and their very unique musical chemistry. In fact, even Planxty’s own children got to see them perform together for the first time.”
2. The Country Girls Trilogy and Epilogue by Edna O’Brien
I love Ms. O’Brien for her story telling as much as I do her ability to make any Irish country girl feel like she was not that odd after all.
3. The Horslips – the original “Dancehall Sweethearts” singing Dearg Doom.
4. Modern Irish Short Stories
If you want to understand the art of the short story as “putting the oak tree back in the acorn,” this little gem is a must. The size of a small bible, it is packed with stories by the likes of Frank O’Connor, Mary Lavin, Bernard McClaverty, George Moore, and a touch of Joyce. We studied it for O-Level English, and it has pride of place on my bookshelf.
5. "Astral Weeks/I Believe I have Transcended"
Van Morrison in full flow at The Hollywood Bowl, mystifying us with a song he once described as “one where you can see the light at the end of the tunnel.” I'm sure purists will be offended, but this live version leaves the original in the dust as far as I'm concerned:
6. Seamus Heaney’s Poetry
When I want to stop the world for a minute and go ‘back home’ to the rhythms of rural County Derry, I listen to Heaney read from "The Haw Lantern," a collection of sonnets he wrote for his mother. And so he is with me still, the way he has always been, whether I'm doing laundry or gardening or any of the mundane tasks he transformed into magical spots of time that make me think of my mother back in Castledawson, County Derry with a great armful of sheets rescued from the clothes-line before the rain begins to fall. Then, the folding, a precise ritual, my father her partner in a dance handed down from one generation to the next. And I’ll hear Seamus Heaney remembering his own mother. My daughter learned those same moves not by the ironing board in my mother’s kitchen, but before the fog rolled in on the end of a windy afternoon on the sandy edges of California. Folding a blue beach blanket, edge to edge, while unbeknownst to us, my husband took photographs and wrote our names in the sand...