A Celtic Blessing

There is a pause in the Catholic mass after the Consecration and before distribution of Communion, where the congregation is asked to call to mind and silently pray for those who died. I have my usual list of names, but last week the names of my grandparents and great-grandparents came into my thoughts. I reflected on who they were and what I knew of them and decided to honor them with a sign of gratitude by going to mass today, St. Patrick’s Day.

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As luck would have it, the church I attend when I am in Florida has an Irish pastor and a large Irish congregation. The 9 o’clock mass was designated as THE St.Patrick’s Day mass. As I approached the doors of the church, I heard singing. I knew I wasn’t late and didn’t realize the pre-Mass warm up was in session. Father John was singing Danny Boy in a Irish tenor voice that reached the corners of the building with clarity and emotion. Women were already holding their handkerchiefs along with their rosaries. When Father John finished, he introduced a gentleman who recited from memory a prayer known as St. Patrick’s Breastplate. It is seventy-one lines long and he spoke it as if he said the prayer every morning, which I believe he probably does.

I have heard parts of this prayer of St. Patrick’s many times. My former parish choir often sang a hymn which included sections of the prayers. But today, to hear it in its entirety moved me into a level of gratitude for my big Irish family I could not have found without it. Here are the lines that spoke to my heart:

I arise today
Through the strength of heaven:
Light of sun,
Radiance of moon,
Splendour of fire,
Speed of lightning,
Swiftness of wind,
Depth of sea,
Stability of earth,
Firmness of rock.

I arise today
Through God’s strength to pilot me

At some point when life became so bleak in Ireland, the Colemans, the Murphys, and the Killians, among others in my family tree left the land where they were born. They boarded ships and crossed an ocean in ships I would probably hesitate to step foot on. They arrived in New York and Boston and found work despite the groundswell of anti-Irish sentiments. (My father once told me of the “No Irish Need Apply” signs in storefront windows in Brooklyn.) They looked for opportunities to work and found them, either through luck or perseverance. And if it meant moving to another city, they packed up and did it.

I have read many books on the Irish in America and all the obstacles they faced. I have heard the family stories of my Irish in America and all the challenges and crosses they faced and endured. There are stories that bring smiles to our faces, laughter to our hearts and tears to our eyes. My great grandparents left their parents and their Irish homes, they lost babies, they lost spouses early in marriage, they, and their children, were victims of job and housing discrimination and the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan on Long Island in the 1920s, yet always kept close to their faith. There had to be days that they couldn’t face. And yet they did, gathering strength from the God who is the source of strength and grace. These men and women recognized the hand of God in their lives and were thankful.

Today when I heard those words, “I arise today through the strength of heaven…” I thought of Anna, Margaret, Bridget, John, James and William who had to gather the strength of heaven, the light of the sun, the radiance of the moon to become the solid foundation for the families I am blessed to be part of. They passed along their faith through my parents to me. I know it the way I know where my blue eyes came from. My prayers at mass were full of thanks for those who came before me and nurtured faith, hope and love in our family.

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