“[The Arch] is a soaring curve in the sky that links the rich heritage of yesterday with the richer future of tomorrow.”
– Vice President Hubert Humphrey at the opening of the Gateway Arch in St. Louis.
The day was hot and humid and late in the afternoon the skies darkened and you could not see the Arch from the hotel window. By 6 p.m. the tornado alarm siren went off and we left the cocktail room and moved into the inner sanctum of the hotel for safety.
I’d been drinking water but I poured myself a large glass of red wine and grabbed a slice of bread and cheese from the buffet table before following the others. I only knew of tornadoes what I’d seen on television, and I didn’t know how long we’d be sequestered.
I should have been more scared. The year before, a tornado had ripped the roof off the St. Louis airport, but I was surrounded by Irish musicians and other promoters of Irish culture, who like myself were in St. Louis for the Comhaltas Ceoltoiri Convention, and in a weird compartment of my brain a voice said, “What a way to go?” Generations would talk about me. “She died in a tornado in St. Louis clutching a glass of wine and brown bread. There was a smile on her face and Irish music playing.”
They’d tell the story of how I’d gone up on the Arch earlier that day, conquering my fear of heights and enclosed spaces. How I’d used my Irish America card to get to the head of the line, dropping Kevin Roche’s name all over the place. How I’d stumbled back to the hotel afterwards, weak at the knees and in need of a large gin and tonic to right myself.
The tornado passed and I thanked God I hadn’t been up on the Arch when the storm hit. I barely made it down when the rain started. But let me tell you why I went up on the Arch in the first place.
I did it for bragging rights, and to impress its architect, Kevin Roche, which I did by e-mail:
“Dear Kevin: I’m just back from St. Louis where I survived a tornado and a trip up the Arch. I was never so scared in all my life – and I don’t mean the tornado!”
To which I got an immediate e-mail response:
“Dear Patricia, Great to hear from you. Sorry about the Arch. It is scary. But imagine going up on the outside!!! I did when it was under construction!!! Talk about being scared.”
And so, here’s the point to my little tale. The tallest man-made monument in the United States was created by an Irish architect. And humor aside, the Gateway Arch, which symbolizes the great western expansion of the United States, speaks to me of the Irish role in that expansion and in building this nation’s infrastructure.
All across the country, canals, railroads, and bridges stand in testament to the work of Irish immigrants. The very first skyscraper was built by Louis Sullivan, the son of an Irish immigrant.
How many young immigrants from small farms in Ireland worked on the Empire State Building and on the Twin Towers? How many of them were afraid of heights but needed the job?
As I stood under the Arch, taking in its full height of 630 feet, I heard my mother’s voice in my head. “Screw your courage to the sticking place,” she said, quoting Lady Macbeth. (Mother often quoted Shakespeare – she only had to say, “Out, damned spot, out I say,” and Spot, our old black and white terrier, would hang her head and leave the kitchen.) As I stood there, I thought of my brothers, barely out of their teens who went hundreds of feet underground to build the water tunnels in New York. And I thought of all the young men who had to conquer their fear every time they went up in a cage on the outside of a skyscraper or down into a hole in the ground. Surely, I could go up on the Arch just one time as a kind of salute to their courage.
Later, as I waited out the tornado surrounded by Irish Americans and Irish music in a hotel on the banks of the Mississippi, I thought about how Irish immigrants brought their music with them wherever they went – to bars in the Bronx when they finished their shift in the tunnels, to mining camps in Nevada, and to Alaska where in the ’70s my brothers and others like them helped build the pipeline and foremen would vie to have Joe “Banjo” Burke join their camp to lift morale with his tunes.
I thought about how through the ages, and all the ups and downs, our music and culture has stood by us. And how community and laughter and music can help conquer even one’s greatest fears.
On the final evening of the Comhaltas convention a young girl recited a stanza from one of my favorite poems “We Are the Music-Makers.” It was written by Arthur O’Shaughnessy, born in London to Irish parents on May 14, 1844. I don’t know if the poet intended it as a reflection on Irishness, but to me it says a lot about who we are and what we have been through, and it still rings true today.
We are the music-makers,
And we are the dreamers of dreams,
Wandering by lone sea-breakers,
And sitting by desolate streams.
World-losers and world-forsakers,
Upon whom the pale moon gleams;
Yet we are the movers and shakers
Of the world forever, it seems.
With wonderful deathless ditties
We build up the world’s great cities,
And out of a fabulous story
We fashion an empire’s glory:
One man with a dream, at pleasure,
Shall go forth and conquer a crown;
And three with a new song’s measure
Can trample an empire down.
We, in the ages lying
In the buried past of the earth,
Built Nineveh with our sighing,
And Babel itself with our mirth;
And o’erthrew them with prophesying
To the old of the new world’s worth;
For each age is a dream that is dying,
Or one that is coming to birth.