SCOTT SIMON, host
St. Patrick's Day has become a showing of the colors in many American big cities, most notably, Boston, Chicago and New York. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 34.7 million U.S. residents claim Irish ancestry. That's more than five times the actual population of the entire island of Ireland. One among us who is a true Irishman, and a recent immigrant to these shores, is the writer Frank Delaney, the world's most eloquent man.
(Soundbite of laughter)
SIMON: Mr. Delaney is a well-known novelist and writer. His last two books are a novel, "Ireland," and last year's sea saga, "Simple Courage: A True Story of Peril on the Sea."
Frank Delaney joins us from our studios is New York. Frank, thank you so much for being back with us.
Mr. FRANK DELANEY (Irish Novelist and Writer): Hello, Scott. It's so nice to hear your voice in my actual ears again.
SIMON: Tell us about, I gather, Irish families used to hold wakes when their relatives went to the United States or Canada?
Mr. DELANEY: I used to conduct a private poll, Scott, when I was living in Ireland. I used to ask people, do you have a relative in the United States, because it was my contention that everybody in Ireland has a relative in the United States. And people would look at me blankly and say, no, no, I don't, no, no relatives there. Mind you, my mother has a cousin. Or my father had an uncle there. And I would say, well, isn't that a relative in the United States.
An American wake, as you call it, was held when a son or daughter from a house, usually on the Atlantic facade of the west of Ireland, was leaving to emigrate to America. And the parents and the neighbors, sure in their blood and bones, that they would never see that child again, held a ceremony to say goodbye to them - a tearful, heartbreaking ceremony, and it became known as an American wake.
SIMON: I used to hear from my mother, who, as you know, is Irish -
Mr. DELANEY: Indeed.
SIMON: From Belfast, growing up, that in fact there is no St. Patrick's Day per se in Ireland.
Mr. DELANEY: No, that's not true. There is a St. Patrick's Day, all right, but it didn't have anything like the power of St. Patrick's Day here, until television came to Ireland in the early 1960s. And then when people saw the size of the New York and the Boston and Chicago St. Patrick's Day parades, and in Chicago - you'll know this - it's alleged that they turn the river green on St. Patrick's Day.
SIMON: They certainly make an effort. They put the dye in. They absolutely do.
Mr. DELANEY: Well, there you are. Well, when we saw that in Ireland on television, we thought, we're not going to be outdone by the Yanks, as they call them. We're going to have our own St. Patrick's Day parade. And of course it is, and always has been, a national holiday.
And he's pretty well documented. And of course, the thing that St. Patrick did, the wonderful thing he did, which nobody ever alludes to, in the course of evangelizing Ireland, he taught the Irish how to write. And when he taught the Irish how to write, the monks, who became his adherents and apostles, they went into the monasteries, they learned to write, and as well as copying out the scriptures. They also wrote down their own family stories. And that is how a lot of the great mythologies and legends have survived.
SIMON: Your next novel is called "Tipperary."
Mr. DELANEY: Hah - you said Tipperary. As a Tipperary man, I would immediately identify you as a foreigner. Now, if you come from Tipperary, you call it Tip'rary. If you come from outside, you call it Tipperary. And I chose it because it's the best known place name in account of the song, "It's a Long Way to Tipperary," written by a man who had never been in Ireland. And it was a great World War I song. And it is a novel about the Anglo-Irish in Tipperary, and it's about land and the great land themes of the 19th century. It was the desire to get back their land that eventually brought Ireland independence.
SIMON: Based on your experience so far, how do you account for the feeling many Irish Americans seem to hold for Ireland, particularly because for the most part, it's a country that they have never seen, or perhaps just for two weeks on a vacation, and increasingly, a country where even their grandmothers don't have any memories of?
Mr. DELANEY: It's a romantic thing, isn't it? Here was this tiny island, with these gorgeous colors, this green, this unusual green. And it's a craggy country, it's in the Atlantic. There are legends about it. It is a place where, because the native language was suppressed, the people who had to learn the new language learned to speak it more colorfully than anybody in the world speaks the English language. It is a place that is the symbol of David versus Goliath. It is the tiny country that won its independence from a great world empire. It is a place where story is really all that matters. Truth is whatever you want it to be - possibility is everything.
Americans love it because it has a very powerful personality. It is a very individual country, and it is totally, totally different in flavor to any country in the world.
SIMON: Frank, it's always a pleasure to talk to you.
Mr. DELANEY: And you, Scott. Happy St. Patrick's Day.
SIMON: And Happy St. Patrick's Day to you. Frank Delaney is speaking from our bureau in New York. His most recent books, "Ireland, A Novel," "Simple Courage: A True Story of Peril on the Sea" and coming in the fall, "Tipperary." How was that?
Mr. DELANEY: Tip'rary.
Mr. DELANEY: Perfect.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.