Sunday, March 6, 2011

March 17, 1900 --- St. Patrick's Day

It is Shamrock Day across the British Empire.  Even in London, the once-banned Irish symbol is displayed everywhere and Covent Garden florists do an lucrative business selling the real thing.

The occasion, of course, is St. Patrick's Day, but with the Boer War raging, this year is different. The Queen, moved by the news of heavy casualties in Irish regiments, authorized her Irish units to wear the shamrock. Welsh units had always had the right to wear the leek, their national symbol, on St. David's Day, 1 March.

Mr. Kipling comes up with a bit of Shamrock day doggerel::
From Bloemfontein to Ballyhack,
'Tis ordered by the Queen
We've won our right in open fight,
The wearing o'the Green.

Not all Irish are willing to put aside their bitterness. In the Catholic ghettos of Belfast, young men name their gangs after Boer generals. The Irish MP, John Dillon says casualties in Irish units are much higher because they're forced to the front, sparing the boys from England and Scotland. If the Queen will wear a shamrock, Dillon vows to take his off. The St. Patrick's Day banquet in London ends in a brawl over whether to give "Three cheers for the Boers."

That April, to further honor her Irish troops, the Queen crossed the Irish Sea for the first time in forty years. Wheelchair-bound, the 80-year old Queen heard the National Anthem sung by 50,000 Irish children in Phoenix Park, a scene described by one teary-eyed correspondent as "memorable and pretty beyond belief."

All is not forgiven for a mere flower. Nationalists paper Dublin with placards denouncing the monarchy as a "survival of the tyranny imposed by the hand of greed and treachery in the darkest and most ignorant days of our history" and baton-wielding police must break up numerous pro-Boer rallies. A pro-nationalist rally drew 40,000 youngsters who swore their undying enmity to the British Empire until Ireland is free. The young poet Yeats wondered, "How many of these children will carry a bomb or rifle when a little under or a little over thirty?"

Illustration from The Graphic

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