Happy St. Patrick’s Day from one fair isle to another

Posted in Duff 'n Stuff, Festivals, Music

Duff ’n Stuff
March 12, 2013

St. Patrick’s Day is upon us and we here on Whidbey Island have a fair isle of our own on which to celebrate the Celtic strain in all of us.

Whenever I walk along the bluff of Ebey’s Landing, I can’t help but be reminded of Ireland and its similar sweep of terrain where the grassy moors meet the rocky cliffs over the sea.

The ancient Celtic people believed the shamrock was sacred; a symbol of rebirth and renewal. St. Patrick used it as a symbol of the Trinity, with its three-leafed shape.

The ancient Celtic people believed the shamrock was sacred; a symbol of rebirth and renewal. St. Patrick used it as a symbol of the Trinity, with its three-leafed shape.

My grandmother, Mary Cunningham Duff, was from the west of Ireland. Curious to see what I could find out about her, I went online to the County Clare Library where I found, among other interesting archives, a list of children who were registered at Ballyea National School between 1888 and 1966, which is near the parish where she lived. There’s a Mary Cunningham listed there as having entered the school in July of 1909.  It says her father was a “coachman” along with the other fathers who were listed there too as laborers, herders and mostly farmers. It could be her.

Of course, I never pass a St. Patrick’s Day without thinking of my grandmother. She came to America as a young woman and met my grandfather, an Irish-American, in the greater New York City area. They both died before I was old enough to realize the value of asking them pointed questions about their lives. I would have asked my grandmother why she left Ireland and if it was because of the effects of all the unrest in her country; the great potato famine that began the exodus a generation before her; or was it to do with the Easter Rising and the general revolutionary fervor spurred by the British attacks on Irish life and culture? Or was it just because the family was poor and had too many mouths to feed; and did she have some great dream of building a new life in America?

Irish step dancers at a competition. (Photo courtesy of www.taltopia.com)

Irish step dancers at a competition. (Photo courtesy of www.taltopia.com)

My father would eventually take me to Ireland with my older sister some years after my grandmother had died. I was a teenager, not much younger than she was when she had set sail. In the west, not far from Galway Bay, we were bombarded with hugs and kisses and stories from my father’s cousins, along with consistent offers of Irish Coffees and pints of Guinness. It was a fun and funny trip, full of long-winded taxi drivers who told charming, brogue-tuned jokes; full of excellent breakfasts, bad pizza, peat burning fireplaces and freezing, freezing cold bathrooms. But always we were surrounded at every turn by the welcoming, lively Irish, who could tell one lovely story after another, and who never stopped asking us to sit down and have another pint.

I thought of Mary then, as I did the second time I returned to Ireland as a college student. I thought of what she may have dreamed about looking out over Galway Bay from Connemara, and I wonder if she knows that I think about her now when I look out from the bluff over the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Does she know I wonder about what she did to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day back in County Clare?

Here’s a Celtic Blessing to take with you wherever you go on March 17.  Happy St. Patrick’s Day to you and to you, Mary Cunningham Duff, wherever you are.


May the blessing of light be on you —
light without and light within.
May the blessed sunlight shine on you
and warm your heart
till it glows like a great peat fire.

From the heart,
Patricia Duff

Upcoming music events for this week and St. Patty’s Day:

  • Enjoy an evening of  Celtic Music at 7 p.m. Thursday, March 14 at Unity of Whidbey Hall. Suggested donation is $12.50. Located at 5671 Crawford Road, Langley.
  • “Friday Night at the Movies” a pops concert conducted by Paul-Elliott Cobbs with the Saratoga Orchestra and with bandleader Chris Harshman and the SWHS Jazz Ensemble is at 7 p.m. Friday, March 15 at South Whidbey High School in Langley.
  • The rock ‘n roll band Pete plays Mo’s Pub & Eatery in Langley after sundown Saturday, March 16.
  • The Canote Brothers will be at the Chicken Barn Concert Hall in Clinton at 7 p.m. Saturday, March 16. Call (425) 791-1719 or email fickbohm@whidbey.net for reservations and directions.
  • “Baroque,” an evening with the Whidbey Chamber Singers is at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, March 16 in the Sanctuary at Langley United Methodist Church.
  • The Shifty Sailors and Eclectic’ly Celtic play Coupeville Rec Hall from 4 to 7 p.m. Sunday March 17.  Irish songs, sing-alongs, jigs and reels make three hours of music with a traditional corned beef and cabbage dinner. Tickets are $30; get them at Bayleaf, Local Grown, Greenbank Farm Cheese Shop, Vino Amore, Moonraker Books or Wind & Tide Bookstore.

Patricia Duff is an award-winning journalist, editor and freelance writer.

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