For a small island nation with a present-day population of about five million, Ireland continues to have an outsized influence on the world’s culture. The works of James Joyce, Samuel Beckett and Seamus Heaney are among the literary high spots of the twentieth century. Irish music has an emotional range and depth that gives it connections to both Early Music and New Age sounds, and an influence that extends into contemporary American country and western songs. With a tradition so rich, spread by centuries of Irish emigration, it may be expected that Irish ethnicity and local custom might mingle and mix into something else.
So the plot of Mary Pat Hyland’s new novel “3/17”, while often bizarre, does not strain credulity. A four-member Irish musical group has been booked to play around St. Patrick’s Day at a few college campuses and pubs in upstate New York. Fionn, Diarmuid, Peadar and Aisling fly to Boston, rent a car and head for the hills. While driving down a country road in Cortland County a mysterious black pony runs across their route and the car careens off the roadway and breaks an axle. Help arrives soon, but the musicians are stranded. They take their instruments and settle down to become short-term emigres. The Irish band would like to play for the locals, but they soon discover that the Ireland they left behind is not the one that’s celebrated on this patch of American soil.
“Be on the lookout for a suitable pub, restaurant or banquet facility. A place with a dance floor and drink.”
“Let’s figure out a playlist, then,” Fionn said. They got out their instruments and had a pickup practice session. Fionn asked Aisling if she’d care to sing some sean-nos songs in Irish. That’d be really different for the folks around here. Diarmuid knows most of those rebel songs. Nuthin’ like them to get the crowd goin’. He wanted Peadar to play the songs people associated with highland pipe bands, songs with a high emotional factor such as “Amazing Grace” and “The Minstrel Boy”.
The musicians soon learn that the local concept of Irish music is Bing Crosby singing “Toora-loora-loora.” Trying to hold body and soul together, make music and overcome the distortion of their native culture, the four foreigners descend into a series of experiences that author Mary Pat Hyland likens to the nine circles of Hell described in Dante’s “Inferno”. Mugs of green beer bubble and foam everywhere and the aroma of corned beef wafts through every chapter of “3/17”, a reminder that the ubiquitous St. Paddy’s Day main dish originated on this side of the Atlantic. They end up playing in an Italian restaurant and sharing the stage with “The Irish Elvis”.
Mary Pat Hyland is originally from Long Island. She has been an illustrator, an editorial writer and columnist whose columns appeared nationally in about 90 newspapers, and a teacher of Gaeilge, the Irish language. Her earlier novels include “The Cyber Miracles” and “A Sudden Gift of Fate”. The first draft of “3/17” was completed during National Novel Writing Month in November, 2009. Mary Pat joins Bill Jaker to tell about her experiences as a musician working on St. Patrick’s Day (“Trust her, it hasn’t been pretty”) and to respond to listeners’ questions and observations.