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We May All Be Irish

March 15, 2010

Most of his waking hours my good friend Rabbi Yossi Liebowitz wears a yarmulke, the traditional Jewish skullcap. Several years ago, on Saint Patrick’s Day, I noticed that Yossi was wearing a green yarmulke.   

When I asked him about the apparent incongruity of a Jewish rabbi observing Saint Patrick’s Day, he explained that his wife gave him the Kelly green skullcap as a Saint Patty’s Day gift.

“My wife has some Irish ancestry,” he explained.

Irish and non-Irish alike celebrate Saint Patrick’s Day in America. Many people, regardless of ethnic background, wear green. If you don’t, you may get pinched!

The first Saint Patrick’s Day Parade in the colonies was organized by The Irish Society of Boston on March 17, 1737. Irish soldiers in the British Army held New York’s first Saint Patrick’s Day Parade on March 17, 1762.

General George Washington, who commanded soldiers of Irish descent in the Continental Army, allowed his troops a holiday on March 17 “as an act of solidarity with the Irish in their fight for independence.”  This event became known as The Saint Patrick’s Day Encampment of 1780.

Seattle paints the traffic stripe of their parade route green. Chicago dyes its river green. This tradition began in 1961 when city workers used dye to check for sewer discharges and decided to turn the river green for Saint Patrick’s Day. Indianapolis colors its main canal green, and Savannah its city fountains.

On Saint Patty’s Day, many folks will enjoy a meal of corned beef, cabbage, and Irish potatoes. Others will imbibe green beer and Irish whiskey until they see leprechauns. All of these customs celebrate the feast day of a Celtic Christian saint.

Saint Patrick, called the Apostle of Ireland, was born at Kilpatrick, in Scotland, in the year 387. 

As a boy of fourteen, he was enslaved and taken to Ireland to herd and tend sheep.  Ireland, at the time, was a land of Druids and pagans.  During those six years, Patrick learned the language and customs of the Irish.

Patrick’s captivity lasted until he was twenty. After having a dream in which he was told to leave Ireland, he escaped and traveled to the coast. He found a ship bound for Britain.  The sailors were reluctant to give him passage, but Patrick persuaded them.  Eventually, he was reunited with his family.

Sometime later, Patrick had another dream.  In it the people of Ireland were calling out to him, “We beg you to come and walk among us once more.” 

He began his studies for the priesthood. After he was ordained as a bishop, he was sent to take the Gospel to Ireland in 433.

Patrick began preaching and building churches across the Emerald Isle.  Kings, their families, and entire kingdoms converted to Christianity after hearing Patrick’s message.

He used the shamrock to explain the Doctrine of the Trinity.  The clover has been associated with him and with the Irish ever since.  Patrick traveled and served throughout Ireland for 40 years.  He was humble, pious, and gentle. 

Patrick died in Ireland, March 17, 461. Along with Saint Nicholas and Saint Valentine, Saint Patrick enjoys widespread popularity. On his feast day, March 17, almost everyone claims to be Irish.

Andrew Neely, a regular customer at the lumberyard, was a carpenter, a handyman, and a jack-of-all-trades. His specialty was installing and cleaning septic tanks. He was African-American. My grandfather liked Andrew, but having a black person who shared his last name was bewildering to Pappy. A son of the rural South born in 1889, Pappy just could not understand.

Pappy tried to explain Andrew’s name, “Neelys never did own slaves. You took your name off my lumberyard!”

Andrew got his name from his own daddy and his own granddaddy, the same way Pappy got his. And Pappy was mistaken. There were Neelys who owned slaves in South Carolina and in Pappy’s home state of Tennessee.

Our Neely roots can be traced back to Northern Ireland after the Scottish Plantation. The tradition is that three Neely brothers immigrated to this country from Ireland, as did many other Scots-Irish families.

The connection between black and white Neelys goes deeper than slave and slave owner relationships of the past. After the Civil War, there was a white Neely man in middle Tennessee who married a black woman. Racist threats forced them to leave Davidson County. They moved to Jackson, Mississippi, from the frying pan to the fire. The interracial Neely couple had six children.

After the wife’s death, he moved to Memphis with his children. There he married a white woman and had another family of six children by her. His twelve children, both black and white, siblings and half-siblings, grew up and had families of their own.

Several years ago, my brother Bill traveled through Memphis. He visited Neely’s Bar-B-Que, and met the owner, Pat Neely. Pat and his wife Gina have their own Food Channel television show “Down Home with The Neelys.”  Pat and Gina have also written several cookbooks.

Bill and Pat discussed their mutual connection to middle Tennessee and concluded that our families are related.

As Bill was leaving the establishment having enjoyed a good meal of short ribs, Pat and Bill shook hands. The Neely men, distant cousins, one black and one white, wished each other well.

Pat said to Bill, “You know we’re Irish.”

Kirk H. Neely
© March 2010

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