KENNEBUNK — After hundreds in Portland take the plunge into the freezing Atlantic Ocean to inaugurate St. Patrick’s Day celebrations, when the parting glass is raised, some might remain challenged by what poet Seamus Heaney called “a search for images and symbols adequate to our predicament.”

Looking at current threats to our democracy, some would raise the same question Benjamin Franklin was asked in 1787 at the Constitutional Convention: “Well, Doctor, what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?” Franklin replied, “A republic … if you can keep it.”

Although the legacy of the Irish is celebrated on March 17, few know it is also a legal holiday in Boston called “Evacuation Day.” Therein lies a direct link between the two March 17 celebrations. St. Patrick bloodlessly liberated the people of the Emerald Isle from the religion of its pagan Celtic ancestors. George Washington’s troops, perched on Dorchester Heights on March 17, 1776, liberated Boston from its hated occupier.

After the evacuation of the British from Boston Harbor, a groundswell toward independence emerged. On July 4, the Second Continental Congress issued its ringing Declaration of Independence.

The structure of our democracy took final shape when the Constitution was crafted as the “supreme law of the United States. Empowered with the sovereign authority of the people.”

There are two critical links between Ireland and America: the thousands of Irish immigrants who found refuge in America both before and after the American Revolution, and the identical quest for political independence from England by both the Americans and Irish alike.


The Irish – citizens for centuries – forced to become subjects when their sovereignty was usurped by a king in England, spent the next 700 years trying to regain their status as citizens. Jimmy Cagney’s couplet superbly articulates the British policy toward its neighbors:

“Elizabeth I, the queen called virgin,

Set up the haves and have-nots

By usurping the lands of the old Irish clans

And gave them to Anglos and Scots.

Essex and Raleigh and Cromwell,


All Englishmen of distinction,

Had an overall plan for the old Irish clans

And the overall plan was extinction.”

The founding fathers and mothers of Ireland were energized by America’s quest for independence. The cause of America in 1776 became the cause of Ireland. The solid link between Ireland and America was strengthened in the 19th century as hundreds of thousands fled to America to escape poverty, famine and oppression in Ireland. A conquered people are entitled to recover their freedom when the opportunity presents itself. The 1916 Irish Proclamation of Independence rang out with the familiar words and resonances of our 1776 Declaration: “supported by her exiled children in America … . We declare the right of the people of Ireland to the ownership of Ireland and to the unfettered control of Irish destinies, to be sovereign and indefeasible.” The Irish Free State was born after a successful war of independence in 1921, and the Irish became citizens once again in their own land.

The digital streaming of imagery of our present dysfunctional Congress and a morally compromised chief executive causes many citizens to struggle to find the words and images that are adequate to express our current predicament. The insight of Alexis de Tocqueville can be read today with the same freshness and clarity as when first published in his “Democracy in America” (1835-40).

He believed that a society, properly structured, could hope to retain liberty for its citizens. But after reminding us that “there are many men of principle in both parties in America, but there is no party of principle,” de Tocqueville issued this timely challenge:


“Everybody feels the evil, but no one has courage or energy enough to seek the cure.”

The Irish poet Brendan Kennelly in his poem “Begin” provides a verbal image adequate to our current predicament:

“Though we live in a world that dreams of ending

that always seems about to give in

something that will not acknowledge conclusion

insists that we forever begin.”

In our March 17 celebration of the dual legacies of these historic trans-Atlantic links, it would not be a strange way to acknowledge the complexities of our entangled history with Ireland if we hoist a toast to both those rebel Irish and revolutionary Yankee patriots and declare: I will act to begin again to keep this republic, and I pray that no one who serves that cause will dishonor it by cowardice, inhumanity or rapine.


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