Friday, March 14, 2008

St. Patrick's Day

There's an interesting op-ed piece in today's NY Times about Irish-American heritage. Online, it's followed by an even more interesting argument, in bulletin-board form, about all sorts of related issues: Irish vs.Irish-American identity, the relevance of the Great Hunger, the Celtic Tiger, and more.

When I was an Irish-American kid in Catholic school, the main thing on St. Patrick's Day was to remember to wear green so you didn't get pinched. I remember asking my grandmother about it, she who went to great lengths to impress the family's Irish heritage on me. I was surprised to find that she didn't have much use for St. Patrick's Day. St. Patrick himself was fine -- she was down with most saints -- but the American celebration seemed to her to be an opportunity for Irish-Americans to make themselves appear to be superstitious, drunk, and harmless. She wasn't interested in leprechauns; she wanted me to appreciate a great heritage of scholarship, poetry, and toughness. Specifically, she drilled it into me that our ancestors had had to be tough, simply to survive to come to America. Peter and Bridget Carroll nearly died on the coffin ship, and were so anxious to put it behind them that the family forgot the its name. She told me they were from County Roscommon, that they had survived a great disaster, and that when they got here, all they wanted was to have a farm of their own. Peter worked on the railroad, and Bridget made lace, and they traveled with the railroad until they had enough money to buy a rocky little "holler" in Dickson County, Tennessee. They lived there all the rest of their lives and are buried there today. They were not wanted in America, and they came anyway. They spoke Irish, as did their children, and by my grandmother's generation, it had become a weird little private language that was spoken by no one except the Carrolls and Cunniffs of Dickson County Tennessee.

The Civil War was not their war, as far as they were concerned, and they stayed clear of it. Living in the battlefield of Middle Tennessee, they fought their own war ingeniously: every time an army came through, Peter and the boys would hide in the root cellar, and Bridget and the other women would go to the door and try to convey that their men were off with That army -- Confederate, if it was Rebels at the door, and Union, if it was Yankees. It was not their war, and they wanted no part of it. They survived.

My grandmother's memory inspired me to take a course in Irish History in College, and to keep reading ever since. The best book, though, is out of print: Harp, by John Gregory Dunne. It made sense, for me, of some of the tensions in family life that I hadn't realized were also a legacy from the dark entry our ancestors made to the Promised Land of the United States.

I am sad that so many Irish Americans are ignorant about our history. I would like for some of my cousins (the ones with names like Hannity or Limbaugh) to remember that there was a time when our great-great-grandparents were not welcome here. Did we learn nothing?

I'm proud to be Irish-American. I still feel like JFK is "my" president, in a way that none before or since ever have been. I notice names that might be Irish, and I follow Ireland in the news. But if you want to buy me a beer on March 17, make it a proper Guinness, not that silly green stuff.


Sheryl said...

Kids got pinched in public school too! I was usually "safe" by pointing out that I had green eyes (because of my March 17 b-day)

Sadly, I think it is one of America's "talents" to take anyone's and everyone's holiday, celebration, or commemoration., and turn it into a cheesy commercial event.

Mortart said...

I was stunned to learn that you were "an Irish-American kid in Catholic school." I realize that this is a very personal matter and that I have have no right to intrude. But I am fascinated by your path from that backgroundinto Reform Jewish rabbinical studies, and wonder what was was the stimulus for such an extraordinary move.
Incidentally, my late father-in-law was born in Dublin and spoke English with a pronounced Irish brogue. But he was a Jew, only a generation or two removed from Riga, Latvia.