Bono and Nancy Pelosi just compared Zelenskyy and St. Patrick. Should we be upset?
Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy is Jewish; this is hard to miss, at least within the Jewish media circles in which I run. Perhaps it is less widely known by non-Jews, but given the fact that one of the central refutations of Putin’s accusation of Nazism in Ukraine is that Zelenskyy is Jewish, something that has been covered by every mainstream outlet as well, you’d think everyone would know by now. Besides, the Ukrainian president has invoked the Holocaust in his speeches.
But Bono — yes, the guy from U2 — seems to have missed the memo. And so did Nancy Pelosi. On Thursday, the House Speaker read a poem composed by the Irish singer that compared Zelenskyy to the Irish Catholic St. Patrick, at the Friends of Ireland luncheon in honor of St. Patrick’s Day. “I got this message this morning from Bono,” she said — not specifying whether the message in question was an email, text or Twitter DM — before launching into verse.
In the poem, Bono — who Pelosi called “a very Irish part of our lives” — references the myth that St. Patrick drove the snakes out of Ireland with his holiness. “The snake symbolizes/the evil that rises/and hides in your heart,” he writes.
Then the poem’s symbolism gets fuzzier: the saints “struggle for us to be free/From the psycho in this human family.” One has to assume this refers to Putin.
“Ireland’s sorrow and pain/Is now the Ukraine/And Saint Patrick’s name now Zelenskyy,” the poem ends, completely giving up on its already-faltering rhyme scheme in the closing line; the attendees let out a large “aw.”
Speaker Pelosi reads #StPatricksDay poem by Bono, which reads in part:
“Ireland’s sorrow and pain
Is now the Ukraine
And Saint Patrick’s name now Zelenskyy.”
She then introduces Riverdance. pic.twitter.com/NzPY1VP2bN
— CSPAN (@cspan) March 17, 2022
Upon finishing her recitation — during which she stumbled slightly over the poem’s clunky meter — Pelosi gifted the printout of the poem to a priest seated nearby. Then, lest the room linger too long on the tragedy in Ukraine or the weakness of the link between Zelenskyy and St. Pat, she proceeded to welcome Riverdance, the Irish step-dancing troupe, to the stage. Moments later, a woman in a short, spangled dress and a sparkling grin materialized, accompanied by the loud tapping of her shoes. She was soon joined by the rest of the troupe; the largely elderly crowd quickly pulled out their phones to film the performance.
Now, it’s never in great taste to compare a Jew to a Catholic saint, especially when there are so many Jewish heroes available for your metaphor needs. But this year, St. Patrick’s Day coincided with Purim. And as my colleague already wrote, an easy parallel can be made between Mordecai and Zelenskyy, one that is much smoother, and less religiously uncomfortable.
Pelosi was addressing a room full of Irish people, of course, who probably wanted to feel linked to a man who has been lionized the way Zelenskyy has. But perhaps we don’t need to make people from different backgrounds one of us to make them relatable; Zelenskyy does not have to be saintly to be heroic and admirable.
Additionally, Zelenskyy is driving out far more than snakes, or the kind of corruption that “hides in your heart;” he’s fighting against missiles and soldiers. It’s physical, worldly war, not metaphorical evil or a religious battle of God and Satan, however grand the mythologizing of Zelenksyy and Putin may be. It seems like we should at least wait until after his death to canonize him — as I understand it, that’s the traditional order of affairs.
On the other hand, to be entirely fair to Bono, Ukraine does have some parallels with Ireland, if not with St. Patrick specifically. Zelenskyy is trying to drive out an occupying force that is seeking to override and deny their Ukrainian cultural identity, a struggle similar to what the Irish experienced with the British. (St. Patrick was long dead by that time and, in fact, was not Irish — he was born in Britain — so I’m not sure he gets any plaudits for that one.)
Still, perhaps the poem’s comparisons aren’t so objectionable. But the clunky, awkwardly-metered poem itself is still deeply offensive — not to Jews so much as to poems everywhere. And now, Riverdance.