The Irish Constellation – The New Yorker
Now that everybody’s confessing everything, I’m ready to confess that, until about five years ago, I was under the impression that the constellation Orion was the constellation O’Ryan. I thought of it as the Irish constellation, sort of the way that actors refer to “Macbeth” as “the Scottish play.” Had I never seen “Orion” in print? I had, in fact, but I suppose I thought it was pronounced “oar-e-un.” I thought it was some other constellation that had nothing to do with the constellation people were referring to when they pointed to the sky and said what I heard as “Do you see O’Ryan’s Belt?” This is not so crazy. I know somebody who, not having been read to much when he was a child, grew up thinking that “Pat the Bunny” was a book about a bunny named Pat. These things happen.
My customary answer to the question about whether I could see the belt, by the way, was “No.” I have been called a constellation denier. I don’t accept the term. Like many people who are called climate-change deniers—say, the people in our government who are now in charge of doing something about climate change—I prefer to say that the jury is still out. There may be definable clusters of stars up there which can be seen from Earth as constellations, or there may not be. If there are, I can’t make them out. When somebody asks me if I can see Orion’s Belt, I sometimes vary a simple “No” with something like “No, but if you look a bit to the left I think you can see Penelope’s Pants Suit.”
It was during one of those Penelope’s Pants Suit occasions that the misapprehension I’d been under was revealed to me. When asked if I could see the belt, I said, after shaking my head, “I always pictured an Irish guy wearing suspenders instead of a belt, anyway.”
“What Irish guy are you talking about?” my companion said.
I’d rather not relate the rest of the conversation. It still stings.
Before that revelation, how did I imagine a constellation had come to be named O’Ryan? I hadn’t given it much thought, but when I discovered a list of the eighty-eight recognized constellations that was compiled, in 1922, by the International Astronomical Union, I came up with a couple of ways it might have happened. It’s certainly within the realm of possibility that the people in charge of the meeting at which that list was adopted operated the way they would have operated as commissioners in New York’s City Hall. According to the New York way of keeping the peace, if you cancel alternate-side-of-the-street parking regulations on Yom Kippur, because Orthodox Jews are prohibited from driving on that day, then, fair being fair, you also cancel the regulations on the Feast of the Assumption, and on Greek Orthodox Holy Thursday, and, eventually, on Eid al-Adha. So someone could have stood up in the meeting of astronomers and said, “How come the Italians are the only ones with a constellation? Canes Venatici sounds like the newly elected mayor of Salerno.” At which point, the chairman starts handing out constellations to the Greeks (Camelopardalis) and the Spaniards (Dorado) and, eventually, the Irish.
But it’s difficult to picture astronomers as New York pols. And I don’t think an astronomer would quietly slip his girlfriend’s name onto a constellation—although I must say that the presence on the list of a constellation named Norma gives me pause.
It also may have been that constellations are sometimes named for the astronomers who discovered them, the way a medical researcher’s name is sometimes attached to the disease he managed to isolate. There’s one name on the list that supports this supposition. As I imagine it, the most distinguished astronomer at the meeting is Professor Szczepański, of the University of Lodz. It’s agreed to name a constellation he discovered for him—although, since there is some concern that his surname is too difficult to spell, they use his first name. Thus, the constellation Leo.
After Professor Szczepański’s graceful acceptance speech, a vote is about to be taken on a list of eighty-seven constellations. But a voice is heard from the back of the room: “Sure, and there’s one more.” The speaker is a small man with a striking resemblance to the Irish character actor Barry Fitzgerald. (As it happens, Fitzgerald was only half Irish and was born William Shields. But if you need to imagine a stage Irishman who starts sentences with “Sure, and” or “Begorra,” he’s your guy.) The comment is met with skepticism, but then the astronomers look up to where the Barry Fitzgerald character is pointing. (The meetings, for obvious reasons, are always held outdoors, at night.) For a while, nobody can make it out.
Then Leo Szczepański says, “I think I can see someone pointing.”
“Begorra,” the Fitzgerald look-alike says. “It’s me uncle telling that gob-shite Callahan to keep his sheep on his side of the feckin’ fence.”
“And what is your uncle’s name?” Professor Szczepański asks.
“Sure and begorra, it’s O’Ryan.”