Tag Archives: st. patrick’s day

An Irish Country Doctor

Irish Country Doctor Cover

Book type: FIction

Summary: Dr. Barry Laverty, fresh out of medical school, finds himself in the countryside of Northern Ireland as an apprentice to Dr. Fingal Flahertie O’Reilly, General Practitioner to the villagers of fictional Ballybucklebo. And as it generally goes in life, what he learned in school isn’t quite how the real world works. He’s frequently disappointed or upset by the methods used by Dr. O’Reilly, but he also learns a lot in his first few months as the senior doctor’s sidekick. He even comes to appreciate the small world of Ballybucklebo, with its eccentric residents–both humans and animals, like O’Reilly’s dog that humps his leg every time he ventures into the backyard. Life in provincial Ulster has its lessons for Barry and has some for us too.


  1. Don’t worry about the consideration of others. Early on in Barry’s introduction to Ballybucklebo, he discovers the dynamic between the country doctor and country villagers isn’t what he expected. One of the first lessons O’Reilly gives him is to never let the patients get the upper hand. At first this seems antithetical to the point of practicing medicine in Barry’s mind, however O’Reilly then tells him that if he didn’t operate the way he does, they would walk all over him, saying: “‘Didn’t take me long to find out that consideration for other people can be one of the lesser attributes of some members of the species Homo sapiens‘” (80). This lesson has an actual application that hits close to home for me, or at least for my brother. Recently my brother told me a story of how our grandmother, when she was still living, had given him some sound advice. He was concerned about how other people would think of him for something seemingly trivial. She stopped him and said, “If you knew how little other people think of you it would hurt your feelings.” Zinger! But really, stop being worried about whether other people consider you or whether they’re considerate to you. As the popular wisdom goes: go ‘head girl, you do you. That’s an Emerson quote, if I’m not mistaken.
    Emerson Quote - Be Yourself
  2. Sometimes life makes you shovel shit. Barry has a friend in the novel, Jack, who is a surgeon at the nearest hospital and he sometimes meets him for dinner or drinks. During one such visit they reminisce about life during medical school and how boring so many things were that they had to do as students, and how boring things continued even after they finished school. Jack reminds Barry of the words of an English registrar from their time there (after he complained to her about his boredom): “‘Old boy, in this life there will always be a certain amount of shit to be shovelled. I really would urge you to buy a long-handled spade and simply get on with it'” (99). This is a valuable lesson for all of us. Some people hate household chores, others hate workplace politics, still others hate family or social obligations. The fact is that either you can refuse to participate in any of those things and have a) no clean underwear, b) no possibility of being promoted, and c) no family/friends, or you can man/woman up and start shoveling that shit.
    Dog Lesson - Kick Grass Shit
  3. Advice doesn’t always have to be true to be helpful. Not long after Barry starts his work with Dr. O’Reilly, he has a day off and takes the train into Belfast and happens to meet a woman named Patricia who utterly captivates him. Unfortunately, she’s also a very serious student of engineering and doesn’t think she has the time or energy to spend cultivating a relationship with Barry, so their courtship ends. Barry, being the hopeless romantic that he is–and I do mean hopeless–is having a hard time getting over the loss of his soulmate. Compounding his sorrow is the fact that he made a misdiagnosis of a local resident, Major Fotheringham’s symptoms, resulting in his hospitalization and a difficult recovery. O’Reilly gives him some advice: “‘So finish your whiskey. […] Forget about Fotheringham. Forget about your heart. Girls are like buses. There’s always another one along soon.'” Barry then asks O’Reilly if he really believes what he’s just said: “‘No,’ said O’Reilly, ‘but there’s no reason you shouldn’t'” (238). Even though O’Reilly doesn’t believe it and even though it may be trite, his advice isn’t necessarily unsound. There’s a reason clichés become just that: sometimes the advice is good, but it’s cited so frequently that it loses its power. Sometimes those sentiments just need to be rephrased to be useful (i.e. instead of “plenty of fish in the sea,” comparing love interests to buses) and sometimes advice doesn’t have to hold true to help someone through a difficult moment.

A final review/recommendation:

Taylor, an established doctor himself, does a great job of creating a backdrop for the education of Barry Laverty. In some ways An Irish Country Doctor is almost a Bildungsroman, except instead of being the coming of age of an adolescent boy, it’s of a nascent doctor. The book is very simple, much like many of Ballybucklebo’s residents, but like them it’s simple in the best of ways: unpretentious, relatable, and entertaining. The first book in a series of many, An Irish Country Doctor is a quick read and makes for great spring reading, so next time March comes around and you’re considering an Irish book for St. Paddy’s day, pick up Taylor’s novel and be entertained by witticisms like this one about a “change of heart” that’s happened to a character named Councillor Bishop: “‘Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. That bugger Bertie Bishop? That man has a heart that would make Pharaoh’s hard one look like a marshmallow, so he has'” (302). And if you’re a reader you’ll appreciate the two doctors’ constant quoting of literature. And if you’re like me, you’ll smile ear to ear for the fact that Dr. O’Reilly is named after the fabulous and somewhat supercilious Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde–the greatest of the great.

Photo credits:

Book cover: http://1.bp.blogspot.com/-P-4GrrorB-4/Uxe1N1vaEAI/AAAAAAAAS5A/MRaOfdl-rUo/s1600/IrishCtryDr.jpg
Sassy Emerson: http://cdn.shopify.com/s/files/1/0273/4903/products/ralph-waldo-emerson-fridge-magnet-1_large.jpg?v=1380467104
Kick That Shit: https://s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/474x/a3/26/91/a326913fd2e35c68d5d8b9016acafe95.jpg

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The Oxford History of Ireland (A Juicy Read)


Book type: History


The title says it all, this book is a condensed telling of the long history of Ireland. It summarizes ancient Ireland (the days before St. Patrick and Christianity), explains how Vikings and then Anglo-Norman (that is, English-French) settlers came to live on the island, and it details the long and complex interactions between the “Irish” (which included several ethnic groups over time) and their British neighbors to the east. It would be ineffective to try to provide a summary of a summary here, so let’s just cover a few quick overarching themes and the lessons we can take away from them.



  1. Reactions are everything. I would venture to guess that most everyone is familiar with the adage “Life is 10% what happens to you and 90% how you react to it.” While this cliché has often made me want to chuck a heavy object at the person reminding me of it, it is certainly applicable for Irish history. Some of the most pivotal moments in Irish history had two (or more) possible reactions to a given event, and what the actors at the time chose forever altered native and foreign relations. Although there are tons of examples of this, here are a few. In the mid-1100s there were various power plays by Irish kings that resulted in Cambro-Normans (Welsh-French) invasions which ultimately caused the King of England (partly due to the appeals of Irish people themselves) to land near Waterford with a large army. (Whoopsie daisy! This also fits in with lesson three below, but stick with me for a minute.) Fast forward 750 years (and a lot happened in the meantime, believe me) to the 1916 Easter Rising, when Irish nationalists engaged in acts of violence that many average Irishmen and women were stunned by:

    Initial popular response to the Rising was general fury and disgust at the human and material wastage. Rebels were roughed up on active service by enraged women and pelted with tomatoes after surrendering. Had [Chief Secretary of Ireland] Birrell’s astuteness been shared by his successors, Pearse’s suicide squads would probably have died or languished unregretted by most nationalists. Instead Asquith’s government over-reacted beyond even the dreams of the conspirators. […] Sir John Maxwell was given command under martial law without explicit restriction or definition of his powers; 3,500 people were arrested, courtmartialled, or deported for internment in Britain. The number of arrests was double that of rebels, and included a representative range of dissident nationalists from groups and districts untouched by the conspiracy.

    The effect of this heavy-handedness and brutality was to congeal the forces of Irish nationalism even more. Much like the idea that a petty criminal goes into jail with minimal knowledge and comes out a criminal mastermind, those interned by British forces–and who likely would never have met otherwise–were thus able to share revolutionary ideas with one another. And that’s not all.

    While the new revolutionary elite crystallized in detention, a sentimental cult of veneration for the martyrs developed outside as after previous failed risings. The conspirators thus achieved their aim of reversing the movement towards Anglo-Irish reconciliation (198-199).

    A similar situation happened after 1919. Crown reprisals against rebels extended beyond the scope of those directly involved and resulted in destruction of property (including fifty-three creameries) and several arrests, which were then “followed either by internment or by summary conviction at the hands of special tribunals or courts martial” (209). A lot of disaffection and violence could have been avoided in these instances had cooler heads prevailed.

  2. History almost never happened the way we think it did. Because we have emotions and vested interests in the way we understand our history, we tend to misremember how things actually happened, no matter where we’re from. In Ireland this happened after the Great Famine of the 1840s when all landlords were lumped together as being greedy bastards who ruined people’s lives, even though several of these landlords were not Anglo-Protestant landholders, but regular Catholic folks just like those who were blaming them. Also, while the failure of potato crops in the 1840s was horrible and caused Ireland to lose an incredible number of its people due to hunger (“…By 1847, nearly a quarter of a million were emigrating annually…” [167]), it also paved the way for subsequent economic stability. Birthrates were high in Ireland and the only way it managed to sustain itself economically was by shipping its sons and daughters off to distant countries like the United States and Australia:

    Ireland’s apparent stability was dangerously dependent upon population drainage through emigration. This in turn depended upon the persistence of demand for Irish labour, service, and marriage overseas. By 1870 more than half as many natives of Ireland were living overseas as at home (175).

    Hopefully if we can recognize that “history” is not static, that it changes as our cultural values change, we’ll be better able to view ourselves and our heritage from a somewhat removed space, and therefore avoid some of the mistakes of previous generations.

  3. Beware of expediency. For a very long time there existed a division of Protestants and Catholics in the north of Ireland, that is, in Ulster. The fact that Ulster Protestants (mostly Scots) enjoyed higher accessibility to employment and economic stability than their Catholic counterparts–both in Ulster and in the south–led them to a willingness to insulate themselves. This was expedient to protect their interests at the time, as it was for the southern Catholics, who were mostly happy to be rid of their northern adversaries: “Partition had practical appeal to every party but one, the vulnerable and confused Catholic population of Northern Ireland” (211). This would later have a devastating effect on the residents of Northern Ireland, resulting in acts of terrorism that lasted decades. We can’t always predict what will happen down the road, but if we fail to even consider the possibilities, we may find ourselves in suffocating circumstances with no practical way out.


A final review/recommendation:

If you’re a history buff and enjoy reading academic summaries of various countries, then I would definitely recommend this book. If you are specifically interested in Irish history it’s a great book to start with (although it was published long ago and you can probably find a more updated version at this point). If neither of these apply to you, just be glad I spent the three weeks it took me to read this book so you didn’t have to. It is extremely informative, but as far as being a page-turner goes, it’s on about the same level as Microsoft Office for Dummies. Still, I’m glad I read it. Maybe you will be if you read it too. But you’re probably better off skipping it and just googling your questions if you’re not super serious about learning the ins and outs of Irish history of the last several millennia.

Photo credit: http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/515Q8G4MMEL._SL500_AA300_.jpg

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Happy St. Patrick’s Day / Lá Fhéile Pádraig Sona Daoibh

Perhaps more so this year than in years past I’ve seen articles on the Internet decrying various forms of celebration for St. Patrick’s Day, particularly in my home country of the United States. Now, not being a drinker myself I don’t fully comprehend the allure of drinking to the point of one’s own public humiliation and I wouldn’t condone it–it’s not a good look–but there are plenty of us on this side of the ocean who like to go out with friends or family, have some drinks, and still be able to walk out of the bar on our own.

Of course for many, particularly in America, St. Patrick’s Day is just an excuse (much like Cinco de Mayo) to get hammered on imported liquor. But for a lot of us it’s also a link to our shared history. Most Americans share the historical experience of being immigrants to our country, and tens of millions of us have Ireland as our ancestral homeland (or at least as one of them). When I was growing up the only ancestry that my family was actually sure of was our Irish heritage. Incidentally, my great-great-grandfather and great-great-grandmother were also the most recent immigrants I’ve been able to find in my family tree, having come to America just before the turn of the last century. Now I know more about my family’s history: we have a significant representation of German and English ancestors, along with some French, Scottish, and possibly others thrown in. But my Irish ancestry will always hold a special place for me. It was one of the first things I knew about myself, specifically my first and middle names, and it was the very first story I heard of how my family got here. Further, it prompted me to learn about the others who came here too, and to take interest in the place they left.

I think the true spirit of St. Patrick’s Day, at least from my Irish-American perspective, is that we should embrace our shared history, whether linked to a specific place like Ireland or only linked by our humanity. St. Patrick was born in Britain and was kidnapped by Irish raiders and taken back to Ireland as a slave at the age of sixteen. He escaped in his early twenties, made it home to Britain, but later had a vision telling him to return to Ireland. He stepped out on faith and returned to a place where he had been enslaved. He forgave and loved the people he returned to and spent his life sharing a message of trust and love with them. (It’s worth noting here that the “conversion” of Ireland was one of the most peaceful in all of Christian history.)

St. Patrick’s Day then, should be a day of communion and of joy. It doesn’t have to only be spent in somber reflection of one’s past and it doesn’t have to be spent passed out under a table at an Irish bar (or worse, in jail for drunk driving). If there’s one thing that the Irish have been great at for centuries, it’s mixing traditions. Ancient Celtic rituals from thousands of years ago persist in subtle ways in contemporary Irish Catholic traditions, despite the attempts of some to squash these “pagan” holdovers from so long ago. And besides, as my mom always told me: everyone is Irish on St. Paddy’s Day. It’s a day to be together, to toast with your friends and also with the strangers next to you, to sing Irish songs as though you actually have some idea of what they’re saying, and to pinch the bastards who don’t get the point of St. Patrick’s Day in the first place and aren’t wearing any green.

One of the great things about the Irish is the richness of their culture–religious, mischievous, kind, sharp-tongued, reserved, spilling over in vitality, and also sometimes troubled. These are the qualities that make me proud to be a fifth generation Irish-American, and my continued interest in the other identities that have combined to make me the person I am today ultimately stems from the story I knew first, that of being Irish.

So everyone, I hope you have had a great St. Paddy’s Day, have boosted the Irish economy a bit, and felt at least a little bit Irish today yourselves.

And I hope you were at least a little whimsical as I was here on the southeastern coast of Ireland in March 2009.

And I hope you were whimsical as I was here on the southeastern coast of Ireland in March 2009.

Further reading:


Sources: R.F. Foster, The Oxford History of Ireland. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992.

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Happy St. Paddy’s Day!

Notice that I said “Paddy” and not “Patty.” Because it’s Paddy. If you have to have a justification though, there’s a website dedicated to this very debate: http://paddynotpatty.com

On another note, my family is pretty Irish (at least on part of my Mom’s side) and St. Patrick’s Day is one of our family’s favorite holidays. But we’re reformed Irish. So we start really early in the morning and barely drink at all. Still, we have fun. And we share lots of funny Irish stories, particularly ones about our ancestors. Here’s one about my great-great-grandfather. 

My great-great-grandfather, Thomas Joseph Nolan came over from Ireland before the turn of the last century and settled down with a nice (Anglo-)Irish girl and proceeded to sire lots of kids and then skip out on his fatherly duties. If you had to take a guess as to the reason for his irresponsibility, you’d probably guess he was a drunk. How stereotypical of you. But yeah, he was a drunk. Oops.

By the time Thomas Joseph became an old, old man not only was he a drunk, he was also a smoker, and completely blind. And he died in a house fire. So, the story in our family had always been that Thomas Joseph Nolan, that good-for-[almost]nothing old drunk, must’ve fallen asleep smoking a cigarette and caught his blanket on fire and was probably passed out drunk and thus didn’t escape. That was the story, until my Grandma Becky was going through some files and found a newspaper clipping about the accident with a picture of the police pointing to a giant ‘X’ on the ground saying that X marked the spot where the unfortunate old, blind, Irishman Thomas Joseph Nolan died of smoke inhalation after a fire resulting from a faulty oven.

Poor Thomas Joseph. We spoke ill of the dead for so many years. And now we laugh about the fact that we did just that and tell everyone our updated history of events. Terrible people, we Irish, but we definitely have some good stories.

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