Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Thoughts on My Irish Heritage

I won't be at the parade this afternoon, and I'm not preparing a "traditional" dinner of corned beef, cabbage and boiled potatoes. I don't have any Guinness in the house. You probably won't hear me singing sentimental songs late in the evening, and for that you can consider yourself blessed.

When I was a kid, St. Patrick's day had its own traditions. Milk at the dinner table poured right in front of our eyes turned from white in the jug to green in our glasses, except for one misbehaving sibling who would receive the dreaded orange color. It was the work of leprechauns, we believed. We also had green snake bread at the dinner table.

Our heritage was heavily dependent on food coloring, I suppose.

As I grew older, I learned more of the history of the Irish. Racially, the Celts were a different people than the many invaders who visited the shores of Ireland, but eons of invasion and interbreeding have diminished the distinction. Those of us in America have intermarried with everyone, so, if someone more apparently African-American or Asian or Hispanic has a "kiss me, I'm Irish" pin on today, they very well may be deserving of the kiss they claim to seek.

But, for those of us with Irish last names, it's easy to feel somehow more Irish than the rest. In my own case, I'm less than half Irish, and my wife, with her German maiden name, is a good deal more Irish by bloodline than I am. But I've always identified myself as Irish, and read my history through that lens.

What does heritage really mean in the United States? I've known people who have learned in their later years that their family background was something different than they had been raised in. Someone who thought they were from a heritage of Polish Catholics finds out that he is really descended from Hungarian Jews. Ellis Island offered fresh starts and opportunities for revision of family histories. We get our heritage through stories told to us by a string of ancestor-narrators, some of whom may have had motives to lie.

It's difficult for me, as an American, to imagine true heritage, in the sense that more ancient cultures have it. My wife is from Buffalo, I'm from St. Louis, and our kids are currently in New Orleans and New York. We don't grow up and die in the same place that our ancestors did. My great-great grandfather didn't help build my church. The local cemetery does not include a section where all the stones bear my last name. My family bears no grudges against another family because of a fence line set down generations ago. A few hours on Ancestor.com can deliver only a whiff of the groundedness that growing up in a thatched cottage in Ireland might offer.

Heritage, for many of us, is so shallow that it approaches willful illusion. A suitcase full of papers found with my family's belongings could, conceivably, have completely redefined my understanding of where I come from. No such suitcase turned up, so I am sprung from Irish who came to Troy, New York, and then somehow went to South Dakota, and wound up in St. Louis - on my father's side. I was named after a man who fought in the Civil War Cavalry on the Union side, came home to drop off his sword and pistol, and headed West, never to be heard from again.

Pretty slim pickings, really.

But here's the scary thing - I can use that tiny sliver of heritage to make myself a monster. As I mentioned above, I have read history through Irish eyes. I have read accounts of boats packed with food leaving the ports of Ireland while people were starving. I have read about the suppression of religion and language committed by the English. I have read the treachery of Cromwell, and remember what happened at Wexford. I consider O'Connell's decision at Clontarf to be a vivid lesson on the limits of pacifism.

Back when I was a young man, I allowed my knowledge of history to override my sense of morality. I didn't feel bad at all when the IRA planted a bomb and blew Lord Montbatten to pieces. Terrorism, sure, but it was part of a struggle that was justified by history. A year later, I rode a bicycle around Ireland, and felt even more deeply connected to the struggles of the Irish. I could rationalize almost any atrocity they could commit, even to the extent of not resenting a bomb threat that interfered with my travel.

I'm a deeply flawed person, but I will give myself credit for trying to be a good one, and wanting to live a moral life. But, when I was 20 years old, I was sympathetic to terrorism, for a cause I had not lived and only read about. How would I have lived my life if I were closer to the conflict? What if the stories told to me included ancestors and neighbors gunned down by the "Brits"? What if I stood on that turf and really felt like my people had been subjected to hundreds of years of oppression by the Brits. What if, having been raised with REAL heritage, and being twenty years old and full of the "moral" confidence that sometimes inflicts that age, I were granted an opportunity to strike back?

Someday, I hope that Sunnis, Kurds, Jews, Palestinians, and every other historically aggrieved people has a parade that features colored beer and warm sunshine. I hope today's parade is a huge success, and I'm thrilled that the weather looks absolutely wonderful. I know that St. Patrick's day is nothing more than what it seems - a fun day to go out and party and welcome spring. Maybe next year I'll ride on a float and toss candy and laugh like a banshee.

But today I look at my Irish heritage, and I'm remembering how I once thought that my Irish heritage was enough to secretly kind of cheer on terrorism. I know I deserve the orange milk at dinner.

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Blogger MoxieMamaKC said...

Fabulous tribute to your ancestors, Dan! My husband's family is much more Irish than mine, but I still have enough Irish in my bloodstream to embrace it...Historical perspective is an amazing (and deceptive) thing when looking through your ancestors' eyes. I think family tradition (even orange milk) is much more important than where our families came from

3/17/2009 9:50 AM  
Anonymous Paco said...

Very nice.

3/17/2009 5:21 PM  
Blogger mdk said...

Pride in heritage often trumps normal mores - it did me, for years. Shame.

I'll visit a bit more frequently, provided you write more often about beer, food & other mainstays of Island heritage.

3/17/2009 6:51 PM  

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