The Irish in America

Heritage Pie Chart

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Several years ago, the following essay won second prize in the Kansas City Irish Fest writing competition. I think there were three entries…

With Saint Patrick’s Day fast approaching, I know I think about my Irish heritage a bit more than usual. How about you? How do you define your Irish-ness? Complete the form at the end of the post or add a comment. I would love to hear from you!

It was usually around Thanksgiving when the teacher would tell us to sit down in a circle and we would take turns sharing our ethnic background with the class. The goal was to show how America had welcomed people from all over the world to form the great melting pot.  As my classmates struggled to piece together their intricate heritage pie charts (“I’m one-eighth French, one-eighth German, one-half Swedish, one-fourth Norwegian…”), I waited patiently for my turn.  I had it easy.

“I am 100% Irish.”

Although I was proud to be Irish-American and liked the ease of being 100% something, I had never given it much thought.

I was not cognizant of it, but early in my life, my dad defined Irish for me.  He was passionate about Ireland– from the history and the music to the legends and the poetry.  He would sing along to the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem as he worked at his desk.  I can remember his favorites like “Roddy McCorley” blaring from the stereo speakers in his den.

My dad is a bit of a romantic with a flair for the dramatic.  He gets misty-eyed when reciting a poem by Yeats or when recounting the struggles the Irish have faced throughout history.  Sometimes the music was a little loud and my dad a little sappy, but this is what I knew of being Irish.

One Spring day in 1981, I came home to find an Irish flag draped across our front porch.  I could only imagine what my dad was up to, but when I went inside, he was not home. I found my mom and asked her why Dad put up the flag.  She told me it was to show support for Bobby Sands and his hunger strike in Northern Ireland.  My mom explained the situation to me – the IRA, Sands, and the unjust treatment of the prisoners.  Sands just wanted to be recognized and treated as a political prisoner.

Well, that certainly sounded like something my dad would get behind.

“But, Aine, your dad didn’t put up the flag.  I did.”

Now this was a surprise.  I had not even considered that my mom would do something so bold, so dramatic.  She barely hummed “Too-Ra-Loo-Ra”.  It seemed my mom was just as Irish as my dad, just in a different way.  I began to pay attention to what it meant to be Irish-American, and I realized there is not one neat definition.  I have embraced the complexities of my heritage and thankful for such a rich and diverse background.

Looking back, it was the other kids who had it easy.  I doubt many of them spent time wondering what it meant to be Franco-German-Swedish-Norwegian-American.  They could quantify their heritage. They had a pie chart.


Author: Aine

I live in Saint Paul, Minnesota. My heritage pretty much covers the map of Ireland: great-great-grandparents from Cork (Crowley, Foley, Regan), a great-great-grandmother from Clare (Quinn), a great-great-grandfather from Fermanagh (McMahon) and his wife's parents from Mayo (McAndrew), a great-grandmother from Connemara (Hannon) married to my great-grandfather from Laois (McCormack), great-grandparents from Sligo (Flannery), and a great-grandmother from Kildare (Hill). All of those people ended up in Minnesota, where my four grandparents were born. Three and four generations after my people left Ireland for America, I retain all Irish heritage. So much for the melting pot...

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