Irish Roots Grow in Common Ground

Chicago Sun Times -  March 12, 2000

The Irish find it amusing the number of Americans who come searching for their “roots.” It puzzles the native born, this Irish-American determination to link ourselves to the past, to shadowy people long dead and places changed through generations. I heard one irate broadcaster demanding to know when we will give up our hyphenated identities and satisfy ourselves with just being Americans.

My maternal grandparents emigrated in the early part of the century, and my mother’s first cousin lives in the house where my grandfather was born. The proverbial white washed cottage in Abbeyfeale withstood 200 years of famine, war and Irish wakes, and now endures a continuous onslaught of visiting American relations.

My mother’s cousin Joan lives there now, and keeps pictures of the thatched roof before they replaced it with slate in 1970 for visitors hungry for the past. She will point out where the hearth stretched across one wall before the advent of the modern, peat burning stove, patiently answering questions and untangling the web of second, third and fourth cousins.

Joan remembers the name of every American visitor that has passed through her low doorway, just as she remembers the days and years her brothers, sisters, cousins and neighbors left for America, England or the little churchyard by the River Feale. The Leahys have been on the same plot of land for some 800 years.

When I moved to Ireland six years ago I felt no need to search for my roots. I have tripped over them most of my life, like huge twisting nuisances that break up the sidewalk, pitching children off bicycles and causing costly sewer repairs to homeowners. At times I have found them cumbersome and wished they weren’t so obvious.

Growing up in an Irish Catholic neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago, my hyphenated identity meant wearing green socks to school and green ribbons in my hair on St. Patrick’s Day. Two types of people lived in the narrow world of my childhood: those who went to Catholic schools and those who went to public schools. Within that, the more narrowly defined Irish and not-Irish.

When I left the cocoon of my childhood I mixed with other hyphenated Americans and experienced another view of Irish-Americans. Because the Irish dominated local politics for generations, I saw how people of color in particular resented them, perceiving them as racist and privileged. When I campaigned for Chicago’s first African American mayor bigotry was laid bare, and I wondered how a people who fought for centuries against bigotry not see it within themselves.

For a while, I turned away from the drunken revelries brought about every March 17 In our family we celebrated not just the day, but all the past days and people who brought us here, who gave us a tradition in which we our rooted. Roots make a tree strong, and passing years put rings on nature’s most durable trees, adding strength and beauty while leaving visible traces of the past.

St. Patrick’s Day in our family was a great cultural affair. My cousins and I decorated the house with green, orange and white bunting and lined the walls with pictures of the heroes of Irish resistance: Patrick Pearse, Michael Collins and James Connelly among them. We sang all the old fight songs. We roared as Aunt Jill recited by memory a Frank O’Connor story – a veritable one woman show.

We sat in solemn silence as someone read aloud the Proclamation of the Irish Republic. We coaxed Uncle Bill up from his armchair and cheered as his tall form, dignified and ramrod straight, repeated the dance steps he reluctantly learned as a child. The cousins wrote impromptu songs and performed a play, usually a spoof on local politics or whatever political demagogue dominated Chicago at the time.

We crossed generations and transcended politics, foregoing the usual family arguments about Mayor Daley and Chappaquidick. Everyone attended, young and old, bringing with them food, drink, songs, stories, and often friends because it seemed too good to keep to ourselves.

For years I struggled with racist attitudes among people in my community, and what I believed were legitimate feelings of pride in my background. Our hyphenated identity grew out of a great struggle to preserve a culture and traditions through 800 years of brutal colonization. Why was it so hard for people to translate that struggle to gain a broader understanding of other cultures around the world and in our own backyard? I came to think about this question of identity when I settled in Belfast. In the North of Ireland a debate over cultural identity, both Protestant and Catholic, rages almost as loudly as the bombs and bullets that marked nearly thirty years of violence. Universities and government agencies spend a great deal of money and research discussing “cultural traditions,” suggesting the sectarian conflict can be breached through education.

While this approach is often scoffed at, particularly in urban communities where violence is a daily threat, Americans might learn a lesson from the idea that common ground can be reached by seeking to understand what is different, while celebrating a part of history we share with other cultures.

My son was born in Belfast. He is listed as an American born abroad, and being born on the Island of Ireland has both Irish and American citizenship. His father is Jewish-American, of Russian and German descent. He carries a German passport, given to him as reparation for when his mother, a German Jew had her citizenship revoked by Hitler in the thirties.

Our son is as about as hyphenated as he can get, eligible for a British, German and possibly an Israeli passport if he so chooses. We are proud that he is representative of what we think of as an increasingly closer, global community. His upbringing will no doubt be much different than mine or his father’s. He may miss out on the warmth and traditions inherent in the singular culture of my childhood. But after six years in Northern Ireland I learned a lot about identity and bigotry, and the dangerously thin line between them.

We named our son Malachi Zachary because Malachi is both Irish and Jewish, and Zachary because we liked the name. But now he is Zach because Malachi would label him a Catholic, regardless of his Jewish blood. In Northern Ireland, like in many places, identity with your culture opens one up to discrimination.

Racism has many complex sides to it, but often stems from ignorance or intolerance over cultural differences. But whether our cultural “identity” in America comes from across the sea, or whether it begins with the first name of a former slave, or stretches back to one of the many Native American nations, we all have histories. We can find common ground in the great effort our ancestors took to preserve identities, and the right to celebrate traditions.

If I teach my son anything about being Irish, I hope he learns to look with understanding on the many cultures around the world and in our own backyards struggling for the same rights and freedoms our Irish grandparents fought for.