In honor of St. Patrick’s Day, I relate to you a story that took place when, a few years after college, I was Eurailing across Europe and ended up in a pub in Sligo in the West of Ireland where an Irishman helped me learn the true meaning of patriotism.
After I graduated from Williams, I lived for three-and-a-half years in Europe, approximately half in Freiburg, then-West Germany and the rest in Paris. Like many multilingual Americans who travel to the Old World, I was a bit ashamed of my native land, preferring the apparently more sophisticated Europeans. They were more conversant in ideas and literature than my fellow Americans.
The longer I lived in Europe, however, the more I observed the pretensions and cynicism of the educated Europeans (and their American hangers on) and grew to appreciate my own country once again. And while I regretted that Americans were not as well-read as I would like, at least we remain more open to new ideas and new friendships throughout our lives. (Many Europeans seem to believe their friendships are set in adolescence.) As I turned away from the narrow-minded, haughty European intellectualoids, I became increasingly fond of the ordinary Europeans, many of whom had a very high opinion of the United States and many of whom, particularly in the rural areas, were as warm and welcoming as their urban counterparts were cold and distant.
I found that Italians and Greeks (outside the tourist meccas — and even occasionally inside them) were particularly friendly and the Portuguese couldn’t have been more friendly and gracious (even those in Lisbon). But, when it came to kindness and warmth, no one surpassed the Irish. As it was nearly impossible to travel the Emerald Isle’s west coast by bus or train, I hitched from Sligo to Tralee and only once had to wait longer than 15 minutes for a ride. And that time, while I waited two hours in Bangor in County Mayo, only six cars drove by. When the seventh picked me up, the driver wondered what had happened to his people that an American would have to wait so long for a lift! Every time a driver picked me up he (or she) was grateful to be able to make my stay in Ireland a bit nicer, with one (a nun) even insisting on buying me lunch!
A few days before I had waited so long in Bangor, I had gone to a pub in Sligo. They say a pub is an Irishman’s living room. And in this particular living room, I had barely taken the first sip of my Guinness, when an older man, noting that I wasn’t a native, sat down next to me and introduced himself. He insisted on paying for my beers and was doubly delighted when I thanked him in Irish — Go raibh maith agat.
Whenever his friends came in, he would introduce me as the American who spoke a bit of Irish. All were as friendly, as open, as kind as he. One man, a shorter man, wearing a tweed jacket and doffing a hat which seemed somewhere between a bowler and a fedora, asked me what I thought of Ireland.
Recalling the kindness of its people and the beauty of its landscape, I replied honestly, “It’s the best country in Europe.”
“It’s the best country in the world,” he added.
I disagreed and replied that the United States was the best country in the world.
“You can say that,” he acknowledged with a twinkle in his eye, “because you’re from America.” “And you can call Ireland the best country in the world because that’s your home,” I replied with a smile. He smiled back at me as each recognized the other’s love for his native land.
A few days later perhaps, during my two hour wait in Bangor, I realized that each of us was a true patriot, an individual who loves his native land as he appreciated that someone from another country could love his homeland just as strongly. This Irishman helped me see that patriotism was more than just love for one’s own country, but also the ability to understand what someone in a land foreign to our own could have the same affection for his land as we have for ours. And to appreciate what it is about his land that he loves. For if we understand why another might love his homeland, we might very well be better able to see what is great about our own.
And given my experiences in Ireland — and with its native folk (and many of their American cousins) — it’s quite easy to see how an Irishman could love the Emerald Isle just as much as I love the good ol’ U S of A!
Tá Éireann go híontoch!
Happy St. Patrick’s Day!
-Dan (AKA GayPatriotWest): GayPatriotWest@aol.com