Learning from my Irish Heritage

Today is the Christian Feast of Saint Patrick, one of Ireland’s patron saints who lived during the fifth century. Celebrated today around the world as St. Patrick’s Day, this observance has evolved into a celebration of Irish culture and is a day of fun and family for those who are Irish or wish they were! As one of the 70 to 80 million people around the world who claim Irish roots, this celebration offers a chance for me to reflect on my own Irish heritage and what I have learned from it. And as those who have read this blog before know, family is of preeminent importance to me as a source of joy, strength, and comfort — all of which I have drawn on throughout my life.

Ireland is best known for its music and mythology, sports, scholars, and, most relevant to me, deep allegiance to kin groups. I can’t claim any skill on the feadan (tin whistle) or the cláirseach (the 30 string harp), although I enjoy a céilí (a celebration), and I do have some familiarity with the mythology, particularly the Morrígan, the Celtic triple war goddess of old, Queen Maeve, the strong-willed, ambitious, and fearless legend, and the warrior queens of the North. In terms of sports, I’ve learned enough to enjoy a hurling match and can follow Gaelic football. Ireland is known as ‘the land of saints and scholars,’ and my Irish heritage has provided me with a genuine and deep-seated love of learning that has been integral in my life.

Valuing my Irish heritage means also looking clearly at what makes Ireland what it is today.

The response to oppression gave rise to nationalism and a drive to be an independent sovereign state, leading to independence in 1921 (only 100 years ago!) and militance with sometimes tragic results advanced in the name of freedom. The Good Friday Agreement of 1998 brought about the end to one kind of violence. The Good Friday Agreement brought a measure of quietude to the challenges of expressing different views, yet more than twenty years later, differences still persist. And the recent investigations into mother and baby homes engendered an awareness of the need for the apologies to survivors of this awful period in Irish history.

Some believe the “Irish temperament” is a mixture of stubbornness, personal warmth, and a wit that shines through adversity. I certainly hope I have all three of these, perhaps a bit more of the latter two than the first. However, having a bit of stubbornness is important, particularly as the director of NLM, which serves as NIH’s center for biomedical informatics research and the world’s largest biomedical library. Being stubborn, coupled with warmth and wit, has helped me guide the NLM as it approaches its 3rd century in existence. It has helped me serve as an advocate for the technical infrastructure necessary to secure our resources and to make them permanently available around the world. It has provided me with the tenacity needed to hold firm to the values of what libraries mean to society – institutions rooted in collecting and disseminating the literature of the world with integrity and without censorship.

What this means to NLM is that we must continue to hold to our enabling legislation of 1956, to acquire, preserve … materials pertinent to medicine and … make available… materials in the library. As Joyce Backus, our former Associate Director of Library Operations, was fond of saying, “science is self-correcting,” meaning that we don’t need to exclude materials that are no longer aligned with our global perspectives, but we do need to continue to gather and make available the full range of information.  

So, I hope you join in the celebration of all that is Irish on this St Patrick’s Day and remember that history is complex — and the purpose of libraries, including the National Library of Medicine, is to reflect the progress and perspectives across time, rather than a snapshot of a particular point in time.

How can we help you in this celebration?

Author: Patti Brennan

Director, US National Library of Medicine

3 thoughts on “Learning from my Irish Heritage”

  1. As an Irishman, thank you, of you
    Happy St. Patrick’s Day to all Christians

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