Monday, March 16, 2009

True Irish quality

From today's Boston Globe:

By Kevin Cullen
Globe Columnist / March 16, 2009

We are told that tomorrow is a great day to be Irish. We are told this by people who hawk beer, and greeting cards that show creatures with simian features, and $20 cover charges.

St. Patrick's Day has become just another day to sell stuff. To suggest it has anything to do with being Irish is patently ridiculous and frankly insulting.

It takes a people and centuries of culture and colonization and famine and struggle and freedom and reduces them to an opportunity to promote overindulgence in alcohol and false pride.

There are qualities the Irish possess that are rarely celebrated on the day of their patron saint, and one of them is their disproportionate presence in the Third World. This is where Maura Lennon comes in.

She was sitting on a bench on the fishing pier on Castle Island the other day, trying to explain why she does what she does, and what she does is go wherever people are dying and tries to save their lives.

"When I was a girl," she was saying, "we were taught there was a responsibility to the poor, the hungry, and I think it resonated, even as a child, because of our history."

She was 21 years old, working as a nurse in Dublin, and one night she watched a documentary about the famine in Ethiopia.

"It was like a biblical scene," she said. "Sepia colored. Children dying in their mother's arms."
The next day, she went to a hospital run by the Daughters of Charity and grabbed one of the nuns and said she had to go to Africa.

Sister Antoinette said her order couldn't take on a lay missionary, but gave her the name of some mad sportswriter named John O'Shea who had worked with Mother Teresa and had started something called GOAL.

She met him on St. Stephen's Day, the day after Christmas, in 1984 in the GOAL office, which was a room in the Royal Marine Hotel in Dun Laoghaire.

"Fine," O'Shea said, giving her pitch two seconds consideration, "you can go to Ethiopia."

She slept in tents at night and played God by day. She looked into the eyes of the people struggling to get in the feeding center, feeling how hard they pushed against her, gauging who was the strongest, because there wasn't enough food.

She did things she couldn't back home. She stuffed children's prolapsed rectums back inside them, because if she didn't they would die. Sometimes they did anyway. She stuck needles in the bloated bellies of children to relieve pain. She slept as she spent every waking hour, haunted by death.

And when she was done in Ethiopia, she went to Sudan. Then Cambodia, Somalia. Everywhere she went, no matter where it was, no matter how bad it was, she met Irish nuns, women in their 70s who left when they were her age.

Unlike her, they never went home. She was in awe.

When her boyfriend realized her visits back to Ireland were just that, they called off the wedding. But he changed his mind.

"He couldn't beat me," Maura Lennon said, "so he joined me."

It's harder now, now that she is married with three boys. Her home in Galway is a million miles from the places she goes.

She came to Boston to thank some people who gave money to GOAL. As Vietnamese men arrived for some late-afternoon fishing, she watched the Aer Lingus plane that would take her home, gliding over Deer Island, where 160 years ago thousands of Irish fleeing starvation were quarantined.

"The nuns say three kinds of people do this work: missionaries, mercenaries, and misfits," she said, watching the plane float down. "But I added one to the list."

Across the water, the tires from the big green bird touched down and spewed white smoke.
"Mavericks," Maura Lennon said.

Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at

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