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Underpants and Frogs

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With the passing of Valentine’s Day and all the cliche roses, candy, and bad poetrytucked away until next year, comes a favorite holiday amongst beer drinkers and redheads around the world: St. Patrick’s Day. Like many holidays we celebrate, the origin of the holiday is often misunderstood, so I decided to pick up a book and learn a bit more about the patron saint of Ireland. Keeping with the spirit of the holiday, and because booksellers have been known to enjoy a nip of beer or whiskey while they read, I found a Guinness Draught, and sat down in my Irish section to learn a bit more about the green saint. According to various tomes devoted to Irish traditions, he was probably born in the late fourth century and is credited with bringing Christianity to Ireland. He authored “Confessio” — a spiritual autobiography and “Epistola” a denunciation of the British treatment of the Irish.He is popularly known for driving snakes out of Ireland, but reason says snakes didn’t inhabit the land. Metaphorically speaking, St. Patrick probably earned his reputation by denouncing paganism and the worship of serpent symbols. Some say he was a man of meager means, while others think he was much more educated than popularly believed.Whatever the case may be, considering he lived some 1600 years ago and his day continues to be celebrated worldwide, one cannot dispute his influence. No one knows exactly how St. Patrick died, but one can say with certainty that March 17th has become associated with everything Irish: green shamrocks, green rivers, green beer, and leprechauns. What many of us don’t realize is that those who celebrate its intended meaning do so by offering prayers and seeking spiritual renewal.In Ireland most businesses close and many Irish attend mass BEFORE engaging in the festivities…THEN they drink beer!To think, for all of these years I thought St. Patrick was the patron saint of green beer. How foolish was I? Popping open my second Guinness I thought I’d dive a bit further into my tomes about Ireland — a section which is perused more than any other ethnic grouping. I have a nice selection of Scandinavian books that get looked through once every few years by an enthusiastic Dane or Norwegian, but the Irish section is a constant.Whether it’s Irish toasts or folktales, books about the Irish landscape or traditions, Irish descendants and aficionados love to read and learn about Ireland. Locally, Milwaukee author Martin Hintz’s “Irish Milwaukee” gets lingered over often in my store, andIrish poet and UW-Milwaukee professor James Liddy enjoys a rather faithful group of devotees. Settling onto my red couch along side the bookstore cat, Koa, I look over a delightful reproduction of The Book of Kells, one of the most famous books in the world.The scribes who created The Book lived in a monastery founded by Irish monks on the island of Iona.It was completed around 800 A.D. when Irish monks were known for their work as scribes and illustrators.The vellum manuscript is comprised of 340 folios — highly decorated transcripts of the four Gospels.While a trip to the Library of Trinity College in Dublin is beyond my budget right now (buy books) — the $3.50 reproduction is both educational and visually interesting. By now I was ready for a cup of coffee and a bit of Irish, ah, courage, so I brewed up a cup and picked up another Irish favorite, Seamus Heaney.My other cat, Maile, joined me and the poet and my cup of coffee. Reading a collection of Heaney’s poetry reminded me why he is one of the most celebrated poets of our time — he is readable.Many folks are afraid of poetry, but this Nobel Prize winner makes poetry enjoyable. Deemed by many as the most important Irish poet since Yeats, Heaney offers earthy images of the Irish experience. And so I finished the last cool drop of my coffee & courage, and placed my Heaney and Yeats back on the shelves. It was time to reflect on St. Patrick’s Day, The Book of Kells, James Liddy and the myths and the literature and the festivities, and yes even the beer! I concluded that as a bookseller, one would be hard pressed to find such a rich literary history mixed with such great traditions and wonderful libations. So this St. Patrick’s Day, seek your spiritual renewal, lift your glass, make your toasts, and pick up a book. You won’t be displeased: there are many to fit whichever aspect of Ireland you wish to experience. One last thought — here is my favorite Irish toast: “May the light always find you on a dreary day. When you need to be home, may you find your way. May you always have courage to take a chance And never find frogs in your underpants.”
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