St. Patrick’s Day on the Leyte Gulf

On March 17, St. Patrick’s Day, when the Irish of the world sang, danced, drank and paraded in honor of their patron saint, I sat by myself on the shore of Leyte Gulf just a little south of Tacloban.  A few kilometers to the south the greatest naval battle of all time took place in 1944 when the Japanese Navy tried to wipe out Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s forces that had just landed on Leyte.  The Japanese super battleship Musashi, recently discovered in the Sibuyan Sea, was fatally crippled in the battle.

Over the years the fishing stocks in the gulf decreased due to fishermen’s bombing and poisoning of the reefs, other illegal fishing methods, and nature’s storms.  The people around the gulf have become among the very poor in the country.

Little of worldwide note happened again until Typhoon “Yolanda” drove a seven-meter-high battering ram of water ashore where I was sitting, up and down that coast. Some 1,000 persons died or went missing on the stretch of coastline that I could see from where I sat.

Across the gulf waters Samar Island was barely visible in dark clouds and fog and soon disappeared altogether. The waves were choppier than usual, so much so that fishermen did not go out in their boats.  Along the beach where I sat the fishermen have piled the concrete slabs that would be put in the water as artificial reefs.  The slabs, piled one on top of the other to a height of six or seven feet, stand on the shore like monuments of primitive people left for their gods.  We got the slabs from the rubble of the well-off houses destroyed by the ocean surge.

I watched a girl of 9 or 10 run along the beach to where her father was pulling his boat up on the shore.  When the boat was safely high up on the beach she ran away just for the pleasure of running, her long black hair flying in the wind.  The waves made a grinding, groaning roar as they rolled back through the shore.  When the girl ran off and the father went home, I was alone on the beach.

I wondered what the history of Irish people could teach Tacloban’s poor, including the young mothers and their children in the fishing village where I sat.  What I mention here is not the result of scholarly research, to say the least, but what I learned from my Irish relatives who came to New York in the 1920s after the struggle between the old IRA (Irish Republican Army) and the English soldiers ended.

The Irish were proud of their loyalty to the Catholic Church over the centuries, despite persecution by their English rulers.  They remembered stories of the travelling priests who said Mass secretly along the bushes in the open fields. To say the Mass, or simply to attend it, could bring death and imprisonment.  They were not servile followers of Rome.  When Rome instructed Irish Catholics to give up their revolt against the English, the Irish refused. “We take our own religion from Rome, but not our politics,” they said.

I learned that some of the women in the new houses in the village had joined “Born Again” religious groups, largely because priests simply didn’t visit the poor areas where they live. I can understand why good people would do that.  They want to pray together and hear the Gospel, even if such brings them to another sect.  I wonder if the Church can find a way to send trained and dedicated men and women into our poor areas. They can lead prayers, preach and distribute Holy Communion.

The Irish people have one of the longest histories of resistance to foreign rule of any people in the world, from the 12th century and the English King Henry II to the 20th century. The struggle now in Tacloban is against the suffocating poverty that wraps itself around the people, and this includes, as Pope Francis tells us, the sinful structures that control our economies. To win this struggle we have to have our smartest and most dedicated young people aligning themselves with the poor “for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, until death do they part.”  We had these young people in the struggle against Ferdinand Marcos, but where are they now? Putting an end to poverty in all its forms in mind and body will take a long, long time.  We need young people to sign up for life.

One of the great lessons the Irish people have to share is that we must mix songs, dance, poetry, storytelling and all forms of art into the hard lives of poor people. The Irish have produced four Nobel Prize winners in literature: George Bernard Shaw, James Joyce, Samuel Beckett and, most recently, Seamus Heaney, the poet. I have been told that in the typical Irish rural homes of old, there was only one fire in the bitter cold of winter. The whole family gathered around the fire to tell stories, recite poetry, sing and pray. Also to sip a little drink, I suspect. Such wide dispersal of people’s art eventually produces some master artists.

There are other aspects of the Irish that are not so admissible. There have been great scandals in the Irish Church. Irish people have left the Catholic Church, or at least stopped attending Mass in protest against Church scandals.

It was still St. Patrick’s Day. We had a nice dinner. I sang “Phil, the Flutter’s Ball,” then we went to bed.

Denis Murphy works with the Urban Poor Associates (