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Forget the Clover, Celebrate Lilt of Ideas

We have just passed the Ides of March, the middle of one of nature's less charming months. A bad day for Julius Caesar, who was told to beware, and didn't.

Once upon a time the Ides of March was a bad day for taxpayers, until the tax code got so complicated that they had to put off the day of reckoning by a month.

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Now the Ides is a day of anticipation because it ushers in St. Patrick's Day.

Shop owners and self-consciously Irish Irish-Americans have been greening up their territories. Shamrocks abound, and so do the atrociously syrupy lyrics of seasonal tunes.

Hearing an Irish tenor weep over lost lands and lost lasses and the virtues of ancient mothers is enough to make you laugh out loud or burst into tears.

Check out the words to "Mother Machree" sometime.

It's the verbal equivalent of sniffing gardenias. A little whiff of sweetness is enough, a little more is too much!

Now I could get in trouble for picking on sentimental Irish music this week, if my name were Gonzalez or Ishimaru or Petrovsky.

But as a Delaney, I get a little elbow room on issues of heresy.

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And speaking of heresy, St. Patrick did not drive the snakes out of Ireland. There never were any. No reptiles at all anywhere on the island. In fact the only lowly critter native to Ireland is a newt, which is an amphibian, and they're still there.

So are the English, especially in the north, and much of Irish history, both real and revisionist, is about the age-old struggle between Empire and Island.

As the headlines reflect all too often, that goes on. It ebbs and flows, but it continues.

What is astonishing is that the English language, imposed by the British as a tool for breaking the Irish culture, has become a vehicle for Irish supremacy.

Weaving the craft of the ancient Celtic bards into the new tongue, Irish writers - from Swift through Shaw and Wilde and Yeats and Joyce to Brendan Behan and Conor Cruise O'Brien - have used the English language as a whip to smite the English.

Maybe the Irish gift of gab, or the Blarney touch, or whatever it is that gives so many Irishmen a way with words, comes from genetic and cultural sources. Maybe it's the inherent music and lilt of the Irish language, that flavors the English of the Irish.

Irish, as a language, is now in vigorous revival. Here's a familiar example that has migrated from the Irish language to the English language - and onto kitchen-wall embroidery all over the US:

May the road rise up to meet you.

May the wind be always at your back,

And the sun warm upon your face,

And the rains fall soft upon your fields,

And until we meet again,

May God hold you in the palm of his hand.

It's the images that make the words sing, in either language.

And the words carry the baggage when it comes to moving an idea from one mind to another.

"If I don't get the words right," said a man who once ran the BBC's news service, "Who will trust me with the ideas?"

We have hundreds of thousands of words, and the language we speak is rich in ways to combine them into new ideas or ideas better stated.

Doing that might be a useful and quiet way to mark this St. Patrick's Day. Mine the language for the nuggets of expression that lie there unexposed.

You might say, for example, that dreaming is an impractical exercise that yields nothing tangible, and that it takes hard work to achieve what the dreamer envisions.

Or you might say, "dreams are of the heart, but deeds are of the hand."

That comes from a half-Irish, half- French author whose novels tried to teach self-reliance to a generation of American boys.

It's appropriate to cite Louis L'Amour during such an Irish-flavored week here in Vermont where so many surnames are French.

And may rains fall soft upon your fields too, mon ami.

* Steve Delaney, a self-consciously Irish Irish-American, is a former Monitor Radio host. He lives in Vermont.

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