Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Irish Diaspora

It’s St. Patrick’s day as I write this and I’m not wearing anything green. If I ever have in previous years, it’s been accidental. I’m American, a proud citizen of the USA and I’m very conscious of that whenever I’m traveling in another country, including Ireland where I’ll be visiting for the fourth time in a couple of weeks. Though all my ancestors came from there and 97% of my DNA matches that of people who live in northwest Ireland, West-central Ireland, and southwest Ireland, I’m still very much an American.

That my ancestors came from the west of Ireland means they lived “beyond the pale” — that is, they lived outside an area controlled by the British (around Dublin) called  “the pale” in the 14th and 15th centuries. My people resisted submission to foreign rule so they were banished westward, again and again, to areas with poorer and poorer soil. In the 1600s when Oliver Cromwell invaded Ireland, they were pushed back still further and sent “to hell or Connaught.”

Yours truly in The Burren, 2009
Thousands were sold into slavery in the West Indies during that time and Connaught (especially an area called The Burren) was an area about which it was said at the time “to have not wood enough to hang a man, water enough to drown him, nor earth enough to bury him.” All were evidently very poor, which is why so many left Ireland for America. Life was very difficult long before the potato famines of the 19th century which only made it worse.

In spite of all that, the little leprechaun with his fists up on the logo of “Fighting Irish” sports teams at the University of Notre Dame does not offend me. Neither does the one of another leprechaun spinning a basketball on the index finger of his right hand while balancing on a shillelagh with his left which the Boston Celtics use. No Irishman or Irish-American, as far as I know, has objected to the stereotype that Irish people are prone to fighting. They are. As for the other well-known stereotype that the Irish are prone to drinking, that shoe fits too. It certainly has for my ancestors going back four generations at least. Paddy wagons were so named because they were usually filled with Irish immigrants named Patrick, or “Paddy” who were arrested for drinking and fighting.

Are those attributes part of Irish DNA or have they been socialized into us for generations under Viking and then British oppression? Both? No one knows for sure but at least we’re not overly sensitive about them, unlike so many other kinds of people who lead campaigns demanding certain logos and mascots be changed. Yeah, the Irish have suffered, but any student of history knows that no ancestral groups, anywhere, have been spared suffering from starvation, war, slavery, and all the other nasty things we humans do to each other.

Is it true what Matt Damon’s character in "The Departed" said about the Irish — that: “This is one race of people for whom psychoanalysis is of no use whatsoever”? How about what Thomas Cahill said about the Irish in his book, How The Irish Saved Civilization: “They pursued the wondrous deed, the heroic gesture: fighting…drinking, art — poetry for intense emotion…” Was he correct? Perhaps, but no Irish poet I’ve ever read stimulated intense emotion in me. They don’t reach me the way Robert Frost does.
My DNA map blowup for County Cork

In America, my ancestors became coal miners, policemen, domestic servants, laborers, and streetcar drivers. Their offspring — my uncles, aunts, cousins, and so forth — have joined all the professions and many are doing quite well. We’ve assimilated fully and that’s good for America. I’m struggling to find information on my great-grandfather, Eugene Sullivan, after whom my father was named. Born in County Cork, Ireland, he came over in 1900 and became a cop in Cambridge, Massachusetts. On the boat, he met his first wife, Mary Mahoney, also from Cork as the family story goes, who bore fourteen of his children in thirteen years before dying in 1917 at only thirty-nine. My grandmother, Mary Sullivan, was the oldest. She married and bore my father at nineteen in 1922 and five more children as well.

Great-grandfather Eugene Sullivan
Mary Mahoney’s mother, Kate Mahoney, also bore fourteen children back in Ireland and she lived to be sixty — beyond average life expectancy for a woman in that time and place. My own mother had eight, and she is still with us at ninety-four with grandchildren and great-grandchildren too numerous to count. Three more are gestating, but that is not the norm in America today. If it weren’t for immigration, the US population would be in serious decline. Few native-born Americans want children anymore. They have dogs instead.

America is changing and so is Ireland. I want to experience as much of it as I can before it changes into something that would be unrecognizable to my ancestors.


Rhonda said...

Well, sometimes I do wear green on St Patrick's Day. It is because I am so proud of my Irish line that stretches back to before the Revolutionary War. I am proud of my ancestor, Ezekiel Causey, who fought in it. Other than that I am very Swedish, English and German. And my roots go so far back in American history, that I am also 1% Ashkenazi Jew, 1% Asian/American Indian and 1% African. So some of my lines go back to the 1600s here in the US. I like it when everyone wears green on St Patrick's Day.

Anonymous said...

You should be proud of your Irish heritage which may be drastically watered-down or no longer exist in Ireland and many other European countries. The U.S. is in the beginning stages of committing cultural suicide, but what the heck is wrong with Ireland's political class?