Tuesday, March 17, 2009

On Being Irish (March 17th or not)

I’m here because in the mid-1840’s my great-great grandfather left the tiny town of Lick Finn in County Cork Ireland hoping to make a go of it in the new world. He came through Ellis Island with thousands of other Irish refugees of the potato famine, moved down to Boston, and then caught on with the railroad, heading west.

When the railroad got to Rush Lake, Wisconsin, he and his brothers hopped off and homesteaded. The family farm still exists on Morrissey Road just off the north shore of Rush Lake in Winnebago County. My dad went to elementary school in Waukau (“Waukau State Graded School”) a few miles away, and drove to Oshkosh to attend High School, after which he served in the Big War and then returned to Wisconsin to graduate from college, marry my mom, and start his family.

Growing up, I guess we knew we were Irish, but we were never “Irish-Americans”. Our “clan” gathered frequently. Morrisseys, Currans, Days, O’Days, Killeens…Irish surnames predominated at gatherings of the extended family. But for me, my identity was “American”. My best pals growing up were named Dominowski and Mompier. I’m pretty sure they didn’t think of me as a Mick, and I didn’t think of them as anything other than Americans. My mother’s folks came out of Austria to escape the tyranny over there, and my maternal grandmother spoke German. But mom is an American a girl as there ever was.

I don’t care for Irish food; I don’t particularly like Irish music; and the only part of the Celtic culture I’ve embraced is the gift of gab. (The Irish call poets “failed talkers”.) In the mid-70’s, I was on the auld sod, and made a side-trip to the ancestral home-town in County Cork. I visited the Blarney Castle, just a few miles from the ancestral origins, and climbed the steps and got down on my back and slid out and kissed the Blarney Stone.

The former governor of New York, Al Smith, came from New York City’s tough lower East Side, and became the first Irish Catholic to run for President. The story is told that once a lady of temperance was concluding a long, pleading speech with the phrase “I would rather commit adultery than take a glass of beer”. A voice from the audience said “Who wouldn’t?”. Smith reportedly said “ah, a fellow Irishman”.

So go drink all the green beer you want today; wear green; eat that horrible cabbage and ruined beef; put an O’ in front of your name; and have a ball. I’d rather have a serving of my Italian wife’s lasagna.

1 comment:

  1. Our village was predominantly populated by German Lutherans but I don't recall a single instance of anyone taking note, let alone making a big deal, of nationalities or even religious background.

    Writers, too (not just poets), are regarded by the Irish as failed talkers. If you think of the best comeback lines on your way home from the party, you are a failed talker. Al Smith? Clearly a talker.