St. Patrick’s Day is coming!  Store windows are going green, and it’s not about the environment. Cardboard shamrocks hang in stationery shop windows; florists offer pots of shamrocks and green tinted carnation bouquets. We hunt for something green to wear. Classic movie channels recycle old Irish-themed favorites: The Quiet Man, with John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara, or Finian’s Rainbow, with Fred Astaire, Petula Clark ~ and Tommy Steele as Og, the Leprechaun. In Irish dance clubs and studios, step dancers kick and prance, rehearsing for St. Patrick’s Day performances.

There’s an air of happy-go-lucky celebration in this. We speak of “the luck of the Irish!” We remember one of their most enchanting myths: the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. (All you have to do is catch a leprechaun who knows where the pot lies hidden, and induce him to give it up!) We embrace the lucky color green, associated in our culture with the concept of material wealth (greenbacks=dollars).

We forget that the Irish weren’t always lucky. They suffered under harsh English rule for hundreds of years, following their subjugation by the Tudor kings in the 16th century. By the 19th century, increasingly rebellious Irishmen and women were being hanged for  “the wearing of the green,” which the English considered as a sign of rebellion against the crown.

The Great Famine of 1845, the result of the failure of the potato crop that fed 1/3 of Ireland’s people, completed their devastation. Massive starvation and forced emigration reduced Ireland’s population by 20-25 percent! Irish refugees sought work in England and other nearby European countries. Those lucky enough to get steerage passage to the New World endured further discrimination there, rivaling that suffered by the Blacks and Jews. N.I.N.A. signs, posted in front of boarding houses and places of business, meant “No Irish Need Apply.”

As for the shamrock, it wasn’t originally a sign of luck or Irish patriotism. Instead, it was a symbol of the Trinity, used by St. Patrick to explain the 3-in-1 Christian God to his Pagan Irish converts. The Irish Catholic faith they received from Patrick gave many converts the hope that God would provide them with better opportunities and a brighter future for their children. It helped sustain them in their struggles to survive, and even prosper, if they were allowed to work for it.

Despite their disadvantages, the hardy Irish did survive. After a rocky start, they thrived in the New World. Today, at least 12.1% of the total US population is of Irish ancestry. They assimilated into their adopted country, and have made huge contributions to it.  A single example illustrates this.

In the mid 1840’s, James Kennedy immigrated to Massachusetts to escape the Irish Potato Famine. He survived, and in due course, his great-grandson, Joseph Patrick Kennedy Sr., made a fortune in real estate, banking, bootlegging, and movie making. Turning his attention to politics, Joe Kennedy supported Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s bid for the Presidency. FDR rewarded him by appointing him head of the new Securities and Exchange Commission, where he was a successful watchdog due to his personal experience of how businessmen could evade regulation. (Poacher turned gamekeeper, as the British say.)

In 1939, he was appointed Ambassador to the Court of St. James in the UK, the country that, only two generations before, had driven his ancestors from their homeland.

Misfortune was transformed by hard work, (and a lot of Irish cunning!) into good fortune. In 1960, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the second of Joe’s nine children by Rose Fitzgerald, was elected President of the United States, the first person of Irish-Catholic heritage to serve in that office. Whatever you may think of JFK’s accomplishments, and of the subsequent tragedies that dogged the Kennedy family, his election marked as dramatic a reversal in the fortunes of a once-despised minority as the election of Barack Obama has made in 2009.

On March 17th, 2009, people across the globe will celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. In New York City, which hosts the biggest St. Patrick’s Day celebration in the world, at least 150,000 marchers will strut down Fifth Avenue. Two million spectators will cheer them on. Honorary Irishmen all, they’ll wear leprechaun hats, drink beer, sing lilting Celtic songs, and sport shamrocks in their lapels. They’ll focus on the festive aspects of the resilient Irish culture, and talk about “the luck of the Irish!” This is exactly what we should all do on this day of celebration ~ enjoy ourselves!

But we shouldn’t forget the trials the nation endured on its way to becoming the financial “Celtic Tiger.” From the 1990’s until the recent downturn in 2009, Ireland went from being one of the poorest countries in Europe to one of the richest. It was a stunning achievement. It should recover when conditions improve, particularly if it maintains the low taxation rate that was the principal engine of its success.

We should remember that St. Patrick himself endured great trials, including slavery, on his way to becoming the beloved patron saint of Ireland.

The luck of the Irish depended on many things. Toughness of spirit. A determination to succeed. A willingness to work hard, and to take chances. An enduring faith in themselves, their destiny, and their God.

A Roman philosopher called Seneca, said something that is as true today as it was in the 1st century AD:

“Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.”

Thomas Jefferson, the 3rd American President, and author of the Declaration of Independence, was even more blunt.

“I’m a great believer in luck, and I find the harder I work, the more I have of it.” 

Luck comes to those who are ready to seize opportunity when it comes knocking at your door. It comes to those who open the door, let it in, and then follow up with hard, consistent work.

That’s what created the luck of the Irish. In this, may we all be Honorary Irishmen!