Mar. 17, 2014
Everyone suddenly burst out singing;
And I was filled with such delight
As prisoned birds must find in freedom,
Winging wildly across the white
Orchards and dark-green fields; on—on—and out of sight.
Everyone's voice was suddenly lifted;
And beauty came like the setting sun:
My heart was shaken with tears; and horror
Drifted away ... O, but Everyone
Was a bird; and the song was wordless; the singing will never be
Today is St. Patrick's Day, a feast day honoring the patron saint of Ireland. St. Patrick's Day was originally intended as a holy day to observe the arrival of Christianity into Ireland. St. Patrick himself was English, not Irish. He was born into an aristocratic family, but was kidnapped and taken to Ireland. Eventually, he escaped, went home, became a priest, and returned to Ireland to convert the natives to Christianity. According to St. Patrick's Day lore, Patrick used the three leaves of the shamrock to explain the Christian holy trinity (the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit) to the native Irish, and the shamrock is now, along with the color green, one of the major symbols of the holiday.
Until fairly recently, St. Patrick's Day was celebrated only as a religious holiday in Ireland. People were given the day off from work; they went to church, and then they shared a big roast dinner with their families. The pubs were required to remain closed that day, so no green beer — or beer of any sort, for that matter — was allowed to be served in public. It was the Irish in America and Canada that turned the saint's day into the full-blown party that it's become. The first St. Patrick's Day parades were held in America during the 18th century, as a show of loyalty to the mother country and a way to call attention to the plight of working-class Irish immigrants. Boston organized the first parade in 1737, and New York's first was in 1762. During the Revolutionary War, General Washington issued a proclamation in 1780 that gave Irish troops the day off for the holiday.
Parades remain a large part of the day's celebrations, and New York City's is the largest in the world, with the 69th Infantry Regiment leading 150,000 marchers up Fifth Avenue. In Chicago, they dye the Chicago River green every year. The custom began in 1962 when parade organizer Steve Bailey, also the head of a plumbers' union, noticed how a dye used to detect pollution in the river turned a colleague's overalls green. He thought that it would be a good idea to use that same dye to turn the entire Chicago River green on St. Patrick's Day, and a tradition was born. In Dublin, the parade has grown into a five-day festival and attracts millions of people every year. Consumption of Guinness stout more than doubles on March 17; around 13 million pints will be imbibed worldwide today.
It was on this day in 1941 that the National Gallery of Art opened in Washington, D.C. The National Gallery was the project of Andrew Mellon, a wealthy industrialist and Secretary of the Treasury. In 1880, 25-year-old Mellon traveled to Europe with his friend Henry Clay Frick, a fellow Pittsburgh businessman who would go on to become another of the nation's richest industrialists. This was the first trip abroad for them both, and they came back enthusiastic art collectors.
Mellon bought pieces slowly over the decades. In the late 1920s, he served as ambassador to Great Britain, and he was inspired by the National Gallery in London to create something similar in the United States. In 1930, he had the rare opportunity to purchase art from the Hermitage, the greatest art museum in Russia. Stalin had ordered museum employees to raise money for the government by selling off valuable pieces. The sale was a secret, but the news was spread to select foreign collectors. Mellon purchased 21 paintings, including work by Raphael, Rembrandt, Botticelli, Titian, and Jan van Eyck.
In 1936, Mellon wrote to President Roosevelt offering to donate his collection, as well as $15 million to build a museum that would house it. Mellon had a vision for a national museum of the highest quality, and he insisted that it should not be named after him, figuring that other art collectors would be more likely to donate to a place called the National Gallery of Art than the Mellon Gallery. His strategy worked, and he managed to talk many other prominent collectors into donating their art.
Mellon chose the architect John Russell Pope to design the new building. Pope designed it in the Neoclassical style, with wings extending from a central rotunda, and incorporating gardens and fountains. It was built with pink marble from Tennessee and polished limestone from Alabama and Indiana. The details of each gallery matched the culture and era — dark wood paneling for the 17th-century Dutch work, elaborate moldings and plaster walls for the Italian Renaissance, etc.
Construction began in June of 1937. Neither Andrew Mellon nor John Russell Pope lived to see it completed — they died within 24 hours of each other in late August. The building was finished at the end of 1940, and the next few months were spent installing art. Mellon had given 126 paintings and 26 sculptures, and hundreds of other works had already come in from other donors. At the time of its opening, many galleries were empty, because Mellon wanted a space that could grow substantially as more art was given. His vision went even beyond the building — he asked Congress to set aside an adjacent piece of land so that another building could be constructed some day. Sure enough, by 1966 the original building was full, and construction began on a second building — this one geometric and modern to house the modern art collection.
When the National Gallery opened on this day in 1941, President Roosevelt gave the dedication speech. He said: "To accept this work today is to assert the purpose of the people of America — that the freedom of the human spirit and human mind which has produced the world's great art ... shall not be utterly destroyed."
Admission is always free to the public. More than 4.5 million people visit the National Gallery each year to view its 120,000 pieces of art.
It's the birthday of novelist and children's author Penelope Lively (books by this author), born in Cairo, Egypt (1933). She's the author of the novels The Road to Lichfield (1977), Treasures of Time (1979), and According to Mark (1984), among many others.
She grew up with her parents in a suburb of Cairo and visited the pyramids every week. She studied history at Oxford and was planning to become a social historian. But when she got married and had kids, she found she enjoyed reading to her children so much that she wanted to write children's books herself. Her book The Ghost of Thomas Kempe (1973) won the Carnegie Medal, Britain's highest award for children's literature. A few years later, she started publishing fiction for adults, and her novel Moon Tiger (1987) won the Booker Prize.
In Moon Tiger, she wrote: "We open our mouths and out flow words whose ancestries we do not even know. We are walking lexicons. In a single sentence of idle chatter we preserve Latin, Anglo-Saxon, Norse: we carry a museum inside our heads, each day we commemorate peoples of whom we have never heard."
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