Despite my name (and as far as I know barring furtive inroads in the night), I have no Irish blood or ancestors. However, I married a man who’s 100% American-Irish and soon I became steeped in the history, literature and outlook of the bold Fenian men and women who once struggled for independence and still support republican principles. St. Patrick’s Day, that annual reminder of all Irish, invites everyone in the US to become part of the fest, as I did. But what, really, are we celebrating?
Not green beer or rowdy parties. Neither fist fights nor silly hats. From St. Patrick and down through the centuries, the Irish struggled to break from traditional and abusive powers to establish new, sometimes radical, systems of government and society. They took centuries to create a separate government for a part of their island and homeland, at times educating their children under bushes because they were prohibited by the Brits from sending the kids to established schools. They were passionate about preserving their culture, their freedom, their self-determination.
Accomplishments accompany passion. History, indeed life and people around us now, support this idea. Many other qualities, too, such as hard work, creativity, and vision may be important. But passion drives the whole kit and caboodle. Those with passion might ignore the limitations of law, tradition, even human biology (think of Edison and da Vinci, notorious for short sleep cycles) to pursue their dream.
If we translate this passion into fervor behind a social movement, we see similarities. Those committed to their vision ignore deprivation, poverty, separation from families and friends, violence, imprisonment, even death. St. Patrick certainly did. And people can legitimately feel this decision is justifiable. The caveat: can this commitment cross the line from positive to destructive?
Terrorists are driven by zeal, but most of us agree they go waaaaay too far. There is a line beyond which violence and coercion usurp whatever good might occur from supporting their beliefs. A passion for what’s right, however that’s defined, a group’s protectiveness of its people and principles presents a quandary for any social or political unit working for change. Including the Irish. The IRA promulgated thousands of deaths and injuries while pursing their goal of an independent Northern Ireland.
I’ve pondered the question, “How far should someone go in defending his beliefs?” and decided I deplore all violence and coercion. Instances like 9/11, Sandy Hook, Isis attacks, Charlie Hebdo should not occur. Obvious? No. “The difference between a terrorist and a freedom fighter is a matter of perspective: it all depends on the observer and the verdict of history,” said Finnish environmentaist Kaarlo Pentti Linkola. And US Senator and presidential candidate Barry Goldwater said in 1964, “Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice. Moderation in pursuit of justice is no virtue.”
I disagree. This St. Patrick’s Day I’ll be ready to swap spit with those passionate about their principles, but not those willing to fall into violence and terror. I think Saint Patrick would be of the same mind.