Letter from Thessaloniki

«Every St Patrick’s Day every Irishman goes out to find another Irishman to make a speech to…» I do not exactly remember where I first heard – or read – this wisecrack, yet if not today, March 17 (the anniversary of the death of Saint Patrick, and the day when the Irish celebrate being Irish), at least in the near future, a well-read Irishman would eventually include quotes from the Koran when he makes speeches on St Patrick’s Day. And that is because the Islamic holy book is to be translated, soon, into Irish, according to media reports. «There’s a lot in common between the Irish and the Islamic way of looking at life,» a Ms Leslie Carter – of the Islamic Cultural Center, in Clonskeagh, Dublin – was quoted as saying last week in the Irish Times, in an article which also reported that «the Islamic community is the fastest-growing religious minority in the state.» Could this signify some sort of a well-covered reaction to the looming Iraqi war? At such times one tends to resort to the most absurd thoughts. Sure enough, US President George W. Bush may have repeatedly declared that his administration has nothing against the Islamic faith. On the contrary. Yet in another article, America’s most controversial writer – and former Democrat politician – Gore Vidal, said that «for some decades, the American media has undertaken the implacable process of satanizing the Muslim world. Though I am a loyal American, I cannot say why this has happened.» Anyway, the Irish are far from being prejudiced on that matter. The translation would be directly from Arabic into Irish, the Dublin daily reported, «because when you go from Arabic into English you lose something. We don’t want to lose too much.» Back to St Patrick now, who in his tender youth was captured by pirates and held as a slave for six years before he set out to proselytize the Irish who regard him as their national apostle – the way us Thessalonians worship St Demetrius. Though originally a Catholic holy day, St Patrick’s Day has evolved into more of a secular holiday. Just as St Demetrius Day October 26, which coincides with the liberation of Salonica. Myths about saints are as prolific as myths about ancient and present-day heroes. The Irish lore includes the belief that Patrick raised people from the dead and drove all the snakes from Ireland. Likewise our hero-martyr (almost a saint) Patrikios – who lived a bit earlier in Asia Minor in the time of Julian the Apostate – is said to have survived the boiling water he had to endure while converting the pagans who still believed in the ancient Greek gods. Incidentally, St Patrick’s followers adopted the custom of wearing a shamrock on his feast day. Oh yes the shamrock: It stems from a bone fide Irish tale that tells how the saint used the three-leafed shamrock to explain the Trinity. He used it in his sermons to represent how the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit could all exist as separate elements of the same entity. (Gore Vidal again: In his «Live from Golgotha,» he tries a similar teaching technique, comparing the Holy Trinity to a dry martini – two parts gin, one of martini, plus a drop of angostura.) So, it’s St Patrick’s Day. The one day in the year when even Greeks can be Irish. That is, all Greeks that have some knowledge of this holy day – except my friend Lia Meletopoulou, the celebrated choreographer who some years ago rented a part of her mansion to the Irish Pub in Myconos. «On my doorstep Irishmen embraced me constantly like a rediscovered twin. The singing was deafening. I couldn’t possibly sleep. One night I counted them bellowing the Irish National Anthem for the 21st time. I called the police.» Lia finally succeeded in closing a bar where thousands upon thousands of pints of Guinness were drunk every night. Not very patriotic of her, I must say. When I called her yesterday to ask her permission to quote her, she had just returned from southern India. «Oh, sure!» she said, «and don’t forget to mention that he should also be the patron saint of devout drinkers. And – one moment – wasn’t it that Irish playwright Brendan Behan who said that ‘other people have a nationality. The Irish and the Jews have a psychosis’?…» It was. This was written in his play «Richard’s Cork Leg.» Well, one can surely say that the Irish have every right to be proud of the way they have managed their country so far. Half the size of Greece and with a population of 3.74 million, Ireland has the fastest-growing economy of any country within the EU. Nevertheless, the «Irish miracle» of the 1990s may hardly be attributable to St Patrick’s miraculous shield. Rather, it is due to the successful exploitation of foreign investment, low corporate taxation, political consensus on economic policy and a constantly growing supply of skilled labor. Strange that so few Greeks study in Ireland, while in the UK… Whatever. Here are lessons to be learnt from a country that – especially if one has read Frank McCourt’s best seller «Angela’s Ashes,» which provides an image of an Irish past riven with poverty, misery and ignorance – has so many similarities with postwar Greece. Yet temporarily, Ireland is learning from – what else? – ancient Greece. On the occasion of the Greek EU presidency, and starting last Tuesday, the Chester Beatty Library in Dublin has organized a two-week event titled «Excavating an Ancient Theater.» There, in the library’s lecture hall, a model of an ancient Greek theater has been filled with sand containing a number of interesting objects, which are to be excavated by groups of no more than four children. Why didn’t we come up with something so simple and so formative first? For, as anyone knows, sometimes we Greeks have the most imaginative ideas. Take yesterday’s snap summit in the Azores. Hah! Why on earth did the George W. Bush, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Spanish Prime Minister Jose-Maria Aznar have to meet in the Portuguese archipelago in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean? We in Greece know better. When we really need to talk about our relationships, we just reserve ourselves a place on some TV reality show.

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