Ode to Éire

I suppose before I start, I should disclose the following: I’m not actually that Irish, I’m pretty Irish, but not very, anyone familiar with etymology could tell you “Illis” is not an Irish surname. While I’m not sure exactly how the percentages break down, I know I hail from three main areas, Hungary, Ireland, and Scotland. My maternal family’s presence on this continent predates the United States by a half-century or more. My paternal family was early 20th century immigrants for the most part. Understandably, my exact ancestry is a bit muddled underneath 300+ years of war, immigration, migration, and relocation. My skin tone and freckles alone however should attest the fact that I’ve got a little more than a touch of Irish blood in me. Regardless, today is St. Patrick’s Day, a day in which even full-blooded Italians feel a particular connection to the Emerald Isle, and I am no exception.

The Irish are in fact a quite remarkable people. British writer GK Chesterton says of the Irish,

The Irish are not only practical, but quite painfully successful. The poverty of their country, the minority of their members are simply the conditions under which they were asked to work; but no other group in the British Empire has done so much with such little. [Irish] Nationalists were the only minority that ever succeeded in twisting the whole British Parliament sharply out of its path. The Irish peasants are the only poor men in these islands who have forced their masters to disgorge. These people, whom we call priest-ridden, are the only Britons who will not be squire-ridden.

No other group has done so much with so little”. The Irish took a rocky, damp, island, and created a culture, producing individuals who have in a very real way, dominated world events for the past 200 years. Irish-American’s have played a disproportionate role in the creation of America[1], as we know it today. From military leaders to politicians to writers, the Irish can be found to have at least one finger in anything quintessentially American. The Irish are as American as America is American, the two peoples are quite inseparable. It was said of Irish-American settlers in the American west that: “[The Irish] settlers were described as a fun loving, kindly people, who would give someone the shirt off their backs, but were also known for shooting anyone who meant them harm.“[2]

I have since I was a child, loved Ireland. I love Ireland much as I love my native country, that is, I love it for reasons I cannot articulate. Ireland, more than any other place I have traveled to outside of The States, feels like home. Chesterton says this type of love is the highest form for, “The man who is most likely to ruin the place he loves is exactly the man who loves it with a reason.”, and as he goes on to say,

My acceptance … is not optimism, it is more like patriotism. It is a matter of primary loyalty. The world is not a lodging-house …, which we are to leave because it is miserable. It is the fortress of our family, with the flag flying on the turret, and the more miserable it is the less we should leave it. The point is not that this world is too sad to love or too glad not to love; the point is that when you do love a thing, its gladness is a reason for loving it, and its sadness a reason for loving it more.

I love the Irish like I love my family. Often when I am faced with adversity or a bout of depression, I’ll return to the one place the has always felt like home no matter where I am. There are no higher highs, or lower lows, then can be expressed by the Irish. Folklore, music, literature, this is my security blanket against a world of adversity and uncertainty. As the blessing goes;

I believe in the sun when it’s not shining, I believe in love even when I feel it not, I believe in God even when he is silent.

The Irish practice of melancholy acceptance of the world as it stands is one which I have tried to imitate throughout my life, and a trait I have always much admired. A humorous Irish toast goes “Here’s to a long life and a merry one. A quick death and an easy one. A pretty girl and an honest one. A cold pint– and another one!”. The Irish themselves are a contradiction in terms. At once friendly yet pugnacious, melancholy yet cheery, pious yet fickle. The Irish culture reflects the variety of life, the struggle within all of us, and the tenacious resiliency that makes the Irish Irish.

The great Gaels of Ireland,
are the men that God made mad
For all their wars are merry,
and all their songs are sad.[3]

Australian writer Beau Taplin said of the concept of home, “Home is not where you are from, it is where you belong. Some of us travel the whole world to find it. Others, find it in a person.” Éire is a place that lives in the heart of any man with a drop of Irish blood in his veins. I am forever blessed to carry a piece of home with me, something that no matter how dark my surroundings can never be taken from me. Even if the island itself fell off the face of the earth tomorrow, Ireland would live on. In every Irish Pub, in every glass of whiskey, in every folk song, in every green field, in every Irishman, there lives a piece of that island, and the ideals that sprung from it. I wish everyone, especially those of us with some Irish ancestry, a safe and merry St. Patrick’s Day.

May the road rise up to meet you,
May the wind be ever at your back.
May the sun shine warm upon your face
And the rain fall softly on your fields.
And until we meet again,
May God hold you in the hollow of his hand.

[1] For further reading on this I’d recommend The Other Irish and How the Irish Saved Civilization
[2] Quote from The Other Irish
[3] Quote from GK Chesterton, The Ballad of the White Horse

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1300 Miles, 13 Cups Of Coffee, and a Few Thoughts

This past weekend I went on a short 1300-mile road trip with two of my friends. One of my friends had a college visit at the University of Southern Carolina scheduled on Friday afternoon. The plan was to leave at 7 pm on Thursday, drive through the night, arriving at 5 am. We would sleep for ~6 hours at a hotel, Shane would go to his visit, and then we would drive back to PA. Estimated travel time from Center Valley PA to Columbia SC was about 9 hours. We took my car, and I ended up doing all the driving. 

By the time we got back to PA at 3am Saturday morning, we had covered 1300 miles, 9 state lines, and I had spent 21 of the past 48 hours driving. We had burned through almost 100 gallons of gas, almost 400 songs, and I’d consumed 13 cups of coffee. This was the longest I had ever spent behind the wheel of a car. I regularly make relativity long drives, 1 hour from school to home, 2 hours from home to NYC, 2 hours from school to Philly, 3 hours from home to the beach, 4 hours from home to Albany. I’ve even made a few trips to Connecticut and Massachusetts for work, but 2 back to back 10 hour drives was more then I’d ever done before. 

20 hours behind the wheel of a car driving on interstates gave me a lot of time to think. While driving especially towards the end of both of the drives, I began to consider how adept yet awful people are at driving. According the NHTSA in 2013, 32,719 people died in motor vehicle collisions, and motor vehicle collisions are the leading cause of death for every age group from 3 to 34. Humanity has shown that we are terrible at operating motor vehicles. My own driving habits show this. When I’m driving long distances, I drive one of two ways: with the cruise control on, or with the cruise control off. Regardless of which I’m using, I have little “games” that I play while driving, which while they keep me fully engaged in the act of driving, I fully admit are not the safest way to drive. With the cruise control off, I keep myself engaged by continuously moving up and passing vehicles in front of me. Not to say I’m speed racer doing 95 in the left lane, I’ll often pass the person in front of me over the course of 15 minutes by going 1-2 mph faster than they are. With the cruise control on, I do the opposite, I keep myself engaged by trying to go as long as possible without altering my speed. I switch lanes to allow people moving faster than I am pass, or to allow people to pass who going slower than I am, but I try to avoid altering my speed, for no better reason than it’s something to do.

Neither of these are the optimal way to drive. The best way to drive would be to drive in the right lane, going to speed limit. However, I need these little games to keep me fully focused on the act of driving. My driving is goal orientated, “Im going to pass this guy in the left lane”, “Im going to get around this truck”, “Im going to drive another 30 miles before I stop for food”, “Im going to wait until I get to mile marker x to open my bag of chips”. I always need a short to midterm goal to focus on, and that fact alone makes me, and all people incredibly poor drivers. My singular focus while driving should be getting to my destination safely, but it’s not, I should never drive when Im tired, hungry, etc, but I do, I should always go the speed limit but I don’t, I shouldn’t get mad when someone else on the road is driving exceeding slow, fast, or generally not paying attention, but I do. A computer driving my vehicle would only focus on driving safely, avoiding wreaks with other vehicles, and navigating to its destination. Computers would not lose focus and start thinking about it has due next week, a computer would not dose off, a computer would not be thinking about what kind of food it wants to get.

That being said, it is frankly amazing that we humans are as good at driving as we are. Despite everything I talked about above, I’ve been driving since I was 17, put over 30,000 miles on my car in the last 2 years, and I’ve been in one motor vehicle collision since I began driving, a fender bender on a local road. When you think about what I actually did this weekend, it is astounding that driving is as safe as it is. I navigated a 4,000 lb metal enclosure at 70 mph for 20 hours across 6 states. I did this by keeping my piece of metal in between two lines with less than 1 foot on each side, while avoiding thousands of other people one the road. It amazes me that this system works as well as it does. If we were to propose the system we have today to someone living in the 1880’s, it would sound like a death trap. 

I’ve spend the majority of my life driving in Central Jersey/ the NYC Metro-area, places known for their aggressive driving. Around my home driving often seems like a competition with everyone else on the road, given the general unwillingness by drivers to do things like let others merge, move out of the way for fast moving vehicles, use turn signals, etc. I think this attitude is largely a product of the way NJ is structured. NJ has a very high population density, and being communing distance from Manhattan, during 7-9 am and 4-6 pm, it is very difficult to get anywhere. Where I grew up in Jersey is right around the intersection of almost every major highway in Central Jersey, Rt.s 78, 22, 287, 24, 95, as well as the Garden State Parkway and the Turnpike. Traffic patterns are a mess, and constantly changing. Once you get past my town and closer to Manhattan, if you miss one off ramp you just added 45 minutes to your commute. It is these crowed highway systems that lead to the driving style found in this area of the country.

Having grown up driving on roads where you have to constantly be on the look out for guys in sports cars weaving in an out of traffic, as well as being fully willing to force your way on to an off ramp, giving other drivers the “You can let me merge, or you can hit my car, your choice” look, driving below the Mason/ Dixon was refreshing. The other drivers on the road in the south were almost suspiciously courteous, driving on 81 through Charlotte NC during rush hour I was cut off twice, to put that in perspective, making my 25 minute commute on Rt. 78 and the GSP I can expect to be cut off 4-5 times. I was amazed by the level of cooperation between drivers. When I needed to switch lanes, I put my blinker on and almost immediately, a space would open for me to merge into. The cooperation between normal drivers and truckers I also found interesting. In Jersey, trucks are regarded typically as annoyances to be passed as soon as possible, and if a truck is trying to merge into your lane, you should make sure you get past them and let someone behind you let them in. Driving down 81 however, drivers worked with truckers to make driving an easy experience for all. When a truck would want to switch lanes, the car behind them would slow down to make room for the truck. When there was enough space for the truck to fit, the car would flash its brights, the truck would move over and flash it’s brake lights as a thanks. First time I saw this I thought it was a coincidence, the second time I thought it was just a particularly nice driver. By the fourth and fifth time, I finally decided that was just a thing people do down there.