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August 20, 2014

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Where I Stand: Irish a mix of ego, stubbornness, great charm and wit

* THE FOLLOWING WAS written by the former Nevada Supreme Court Justice John Mowbray and printed in the SUN March 17, 1966. Mowbray died recently at age 78, and will be missed among today's St. Patrick's Day celebrants.

AND A HAPPY St. Patrick's Day to you.

What is an Irishman?

Webster defines it simply as "a man born in Ireland or of the Irish race." Which is like defining Brigitte Bardot as a form of animal life. True, but hardly adequate.

What are the Irish really like? Or, to put the question another way, do the real-life Irish bear any resemblance to the stereotype Irish of song, story and barroom jokes?

George Bernard Shaw thought not. "Of all the tricks," he said, "which the Irish nation has played on the slow-witted Saxons, the most outrageous is the palming off on him of the imaginary Irishman of romance."

Yet Shaw shared some of the traits of that Irish stereotype -- with a willingness to exaggerate for the sake of a good argument. Consequently, anything he might say on the matter is subject to suspicion.

What are the Irish really like? I think the answer I like best comes from the eminent historian, Carl Wittke.

"The so-called Irish temperament is a mixture of flaming ego, hot temper, stubbornness, great personal charm and warmth, and a wit that shines through adversity. An irrepressible buoyancy, a vivacious spirit, a kindliness and tolerance for the common frailties of man and a feeling that 'it is time enough to bid the devil good morning when you meet him' are character traits which Americans have associated with their Irish neighbors for more than a century."

One will get contrary opinions. Just as the Irish never do anything by half-measures, so opinion of them is often all to the good or all to the bad.

Samuel Johnson sneered, "The Irish are a fair people; they never speak well of one another."

You can talk about your downtrodden Irish, laboring Irish, politicking Irish, worshipping Irish and "Irish" Irish, but it seems to me that the "fighting Irish" best describes the Irish as we know them in America, for it is this quality that we see running through American history from its earliest days.

Kipling wrote:

"For where there are Irish there's loving and fighting,

And when we stop either, it's Ireland no more."

Gilbert K. Chesterton most articulately put it in "The Ballad of the White Horse":

"For the great Gaels of Ireland

Are the men that God made mad,

For all their wars are merry

And all their songs are sad."

Throughout the years, Irishmen have looked upon America as a suburb of heaven because it has given them the things they really need: a job, a chance to better themselves and an occasional rousing fight.

History, however, does show that the Irish have their contribution on the American scene. In 1779, a committee of the British House of Commons investigating the cause of the American Revolution asked this question of Joseph Galloway, a delegate to the First Continental Congress who later joined the Loyalists:

"What were the troops in the service of the Congress composed of? Were they natives of America or were the greatest part of them English, Scotch or Irish?"

Galloway replied: "I can answer that question with precision. They were scarcely one-fourth natives of America, about one-half Irish, the other fourth English or Scotch."

Testifying before the same committee, Maj. Gen. Robertson said: "I remember Gen. Harry Lee telling me that half the rebel army were from Ireland."

Little wonder that when the surrender of Lord Cornwallis was announced to the British Parliament, Lord Mountjoy said: "England has lost America through the exertions of Irish immigrants."

Washington himself recognized the worth of his Irish troops. In a graceful tribute to them, he made "St. Patrick" the watchword on the night of March 17, 1776, when British-held Boston, besieged by rebel forces for eight months, finally was occupied by the patriots. Later, Washington was made a member of the New York chapter of the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick. In his letter of acceptance, he wrote:

"I accept with singular pleasure the ensign of so worthy a fraternity as that of the Sons of St. Patrick in this city -- a society distinguished for the firm adherence of its members to the glorious cause in which we are embarked."

In the War of 1812, the war's one great victory was won by a son of Irish immigrants, Andrew Jackson. In the ranks was an Irish soldier named Davey Crockett, later to gain glory at the Alamo.

You name the wars in which America was involved from its earliest to its most recent days and, among its most famous fighting names from the lowliest privates to the general corps, the Irish stand foremost.

Today, the Irish enjoy their freedom at a time when millions of people live in deprivation and despair under totalitarian dictatorships. The free Irishmen marching everywhere today to the tune of "The Wearing o' the Green" are a dramatic contrast to the clattering of hobnail boots on darkened streets the sound that marks the enslaved nations behind the Iron Curtain.

No problem weighs heavier on the conscience of free men than the fate of millions in iron captivity.

I would like to think that the emerald thread of freedom runs into the cloth we weave today in our policies here and abroad so that we may have freedom for all people everywhere, and I would like to think that these policies will survive and continue as the cause of Irish freedom survived the death of "The Liberator," Owen Rose O'Neill.

O'Neill was one of the great figures in Irish history. The entire Irish nation was overwhelmed with grief at his death.

The last lines of a poem written to his memory were:

"We're sheep without shepherd

When the snow shuts out the sky.

Oh! why did you leave us

Owen?

Why did you die?"

Son, on this St. Patrick's Day, let us hold out our hands to those who struggle for freedom today -- at home and abroad -- as Ireland struggled for a thousand years.

Let us not leave them to be "sheep without a shepherd when the snow shuts out the sky." Let us show them that we have not forgotten the constancy and the faith and the hope -- of the Irish.

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