What's the first thing that you associate with Irish culture?
Fiddle music and stepdancing? The literature of Swift, Joyce, Shaw, Wilde, Yeats, Beckett, and Heaney? The monastic culture that preserved Classical and Christian knowledge and laid the foundations of European literacy and education? Or getting falling-down drunk?
Thomas Cahill brought our debt to the medieval monks to the attention of a popular audience in his bestselling How the Irish Saved Civilization, but chances are, the popular image of the nation--not least here in a college town in Massachusetts--still has more to with alcohol than the Book of Kells. I am thinking in particular of the antisocial excesses associated with the March "Blarney Blowout," which has caused such headaches for Amherst and tarnished the reputation of the University of Massachusetts.
This dilemma was the motivation behind the formation of the Irish American Association last fall, comprising people from many walks of life--from academics, students, and artists, to ordinary citizens; some of them, Irish, some of Irish heritage, others merely attracted to Irish culture. To be sure, no one seriously blames Ireland and Irish culture, as such, for the Blarney Blowout idiocy, but the members of the association saw here an opportunity not only to refute the stereotype of the crude habitual drunk, but also to create positive programming around Irish culture.
It of course seems particularly fitting in Massachusetts, including Amherst.
The Irish came to Amherst in the middle of the nineteenth century and found employment primarily in factory labor and domestic service. They settled near the rail depot and factories, and in two other areas of town, whose informal names reflected their presence: "Irish Hill" (east of Mount Pleasant), and "the curragh" (corresponding to today's north Sunset Avenue).
The Amherst Community History Mural, commissioned by the Amherst Historical Commission, depicts not only the town's famous residents, but also anonymous common people, including this group of five Irish women workers from the Burnett straw and palm leaf hat factory, derived from a photograph in the collections of the Jones Library.
Those familiar with Emily Dickinson's poetry will also be aware of the prominent role that the Irish servants such as Maggie Maher and Tom ("One-armed") Kelley played in her life and work. Although the young Dickinson made some horrific comments about the Irish, her attitudes changed as she came to know them. Aife Murray argues that the servants, rather than simply providing the leisure that enabled Dickinson to write, played a much more active role and collaborative role in that creative process. In her view, Maher eventually became "confidante, protector, independent spirit, and co-worker in a day-to-day existence of camaraderie that crossed class lines." And as the Emily Dickinson Museum reminds us, Dickinson broke with convention in death as in life: "Defying customary practice, she requested that six of the Homestead workmen, rather than the town's leading citizens, carry the casket at her funeral. Thomas Kelly [sic], who had married Margaret Maher’s sister Mary, served as the chief pallbearer."
The founding organizers of the Irish American Association, Íde B. O'Carroll and Sam Hannigan, approached me--as a member of the Select Board--in order to keep the Town abreast of their plans and see how we could collaborate in the effort to create a safer and more positive community atmosphere.
The association decided that an official proclamation would be the ideal means to call attention to this effort. After all, the Town of Amherst honors its Puerto Rican heritage each year (proclamation; video) but has never noted the contributions of the Irish to Amherst and Massachussetts.
The Select Board issued the following proclamation last Monday night in a meeting with an abbreviated agenda as we prepared for the blizzard:
Town of Amherst, Massachusetts Proclamation Amherst Irish Day, February 1 - Brigid's Day/Lá le Bhríde
WHEREAS, America has welcomed Ireland's emigrants to its shores for centuries, particularly during and after the Great Famines of the 1840s, and continues to do so into the twenty-first century.
WHEREAS, Irish people contributed to the history of Amherst through their labor as factory workers and domestic servants, they continue to enrich the civic, academic, cultural and commercial life of the town today.
WHEREAS, On this day, February 1st, Brigid's Day/Lá le Bhríde, we recognize our Celtic origins, the name most associated with Irish domestic servants in America, and Ireland's first native saint, St. Brigid (for whom the Catholic church in the center of Amherst is named).
THEREFORE, We declare February 1st as the day on which to celebrate Irish heritage in the town of Amherst, Massachusetts, and designate it as an appropriate day on which to launch the Amherst Irish Association's Event Series 2015, dedicated to exploring the myriad aspects of Ireland's diaspora, culture, and society.
Today's inaugural event:
"Irish Matters, a Journalist’s Journey"
Kevin Cullen, columnist at the Boston Globe, recipient of the Livingston Award, and co-author of the New York Times best-seller “Whitey Bulger: America’s Most Wanted Gangster and the Manhunt That Brought Him to Justice”, comes back to the town of his alma mater, UMass Amherst.
No entry fee –suggested donation, $5-10, welcome at the door.
Following the event, from 4-6, complimentary tea and scones will be provided, accompanied by Irish music and dancing.
Amherst Unitarian Universality Society, 121 North Pleasant Street.
Of course, everyone's mind is on the Patriots and the Superbowl, but kickoff isn't until 6:30, so do please join us.
Scott Merzbach, "Amherst Irish Association promotes better understanding of Ireland’s culture," Daily Hampshire Gazette, 31 Jan. 2015.
Information on upcoming programs:
Amherst Irish Association on Facebook. (email: amherstirishassociation at gmaildotcom)