Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Luck of the Irish?

It is March and St Patrick’s Day is just around the corner. My mother was proudly Irish — possibly full-blooded, although family lore has it that there might be a little French in the mix. With the DNA capabilities these days, I could maybe get some clarity, but part of me likes the mystery. 

My Irish ancestors were so poor that several left Ireland in the early 1800s, before the potato famine. Some came in through Canada because Canadian ship fares were often cheaper; others came through New York. They didn’t linger long on the East Coast, but got jobs building the canals and railroads going west. They were settled in Ohio, Iowa, and Minnesota by the time the potato famine forced other family members to leave Ireland.

I remember events with my mother’s family, which at the time of my childhood still included grandparents and great uncles and aunts that were the first generation born in America. The gatherings were noisy and animated — a constant cacophony of “discussions” regarding current events, politics, and religion. In the midst of the din, it was not uncommon to witness a spontaneous recitation of some well-known poetry, or occasionally something more obscure or even original. It was a time for books to be recommended and shared. My uncle Johnny played the guitar and sang what songs were acceptable having spent 20+ years in the navy. The food was mediocre. 

What I don’t remember are conversations about business, industry, careers, or even work. In fact, I’m not really sure what most of my Irish relatives did for their livings. It simply wasn’t a topic of conversation. Was it because it didn’t matter or because they had no historical connection to "business?” Their families came to America with no money, education, or skills. They were looking for jobs — not business opportunities. The same persons that could quote Yeats or Wilde or Joyce never spoke of great Irish industrialists or inventors.

As homage to my Irish heritage, in this sacred month of the shamrock, I decided to identify important inventions, advances or business developments credited to the Irish, so I did some research.

It is no surprise that one of the things Ireland is most known for is Guinness. Not all that impressive until you note that the company started brewing ales in 1759 in Dublin and remains today as one of the most well-known brewer of beers in the world. And it seems logical that another Dubliner, Aeneas Coffey, would be responsible for a number of advances in the distilling industry.

Somewhat to my surprise, I found that Irish are responsible for the hypodermic needle (Dr. Francis Rynd), color photography (John Joly), the submarine (John Philip Holland), a cure for leprosy (Vincent Barry), the portable defibrillator (Frank Pantridge), perforated stamps (Henry Archer), and rubber soles (Humphrey O’ Sullivan). And my favorite, chocolate milk from Sir Hans Sloane.

There are, of course, many other notable inventions and developments from the Irish. However, a surprising amount, including some of those noted above, were invented by an Irishman but not necessarily in Ireland. With limited opportunities for the masses throughout a good chunk of Ireland’s history, most Irish had no opportunity to experience the type of need that frequently leads to inventions or advancements. On the flip side, the tough times in Ireland appear to have contributed significantly to artistic and literary creativity.

No matter your heritage, you can still celebrate St Patrick’s Day like an Irishman — add “Mc” or “O’” to your name, paint your face green, grab a beer, and enjoy the moment. Maybe you will be inspired to write a poem. 

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