Love, Loyalty and Friendship: The Very Brief History of An Irish (American) Family

In the wee years of 1900, my father’s father’s father came across the sea to Philadelphia. So, too, did the woman who was to be his wife, a Killian. Near that time, my father’s mother’s mother arrived and somehow got mixed up with a Welshman we don’t like to talk about. He was a good man and all, and a good father, but… Welsh?

Be that as it may, they all four settled into the city in the neighborhood where the Irish were meant to be, and there they stayed for generations.

Nigh 70 years on came me.

I am Irish, indeed, somewhere ’round half-full, and my people come from Counties Cork and Kerry. My grandparents’ cousins still walk the southern hills. Years ago, my youngest aunt traveled to the Emerald Isle and found one such cousin’s home. At the gate, she asked his wife if he could come out. When he did, she near fell over.

He looked just like my grandfather.

My grandfather was of the traditional lot of sons of immigrants. Well-named and the youngest of his clan, he went to Catholic school, and grew to love a girl who admittedly had chased him since the first grade (she’d later chase him all the way to heaven). They married when he was home on leave from the war, and honeymooned for five days, partly on a train from the east coast to the west to meet my grandfather’s ship for its re-deployment from San Francisco. He was at sea when his first son was born.

My grandfather’s family had lived in a little house until they were all married off. All, except for my grandparents, who bought the house from my great-grandfather and stayed on, with my great-grandparents there as well, until the elders’ deaths. When my grandfather came home from war, after a few years of unremarkable work, he became a street cop, walking the beat in Philadelphia for 25 years from 1952 to 1977. My grandfather lived in that same little house from the age of five until 79, when the neighborhood’s change began to claim their literal fortunes and my youngest aunt bought another house and took my grandparents with her.

My father’s side of the family has always been, in a fashion typical of our blood, brashly proud of its Irish roots. Not only did we grow up on a solid diet of boiled meat and potatoes with salt and butter; we exhibit probably every character trait of an Irishman that exists. Black Irish right through the line, not a single one had eyes of brown ’til me – owing to my mother’s German heritage. My grandmother’s hair did turn strangely red as she aged, but that was due less to genetics and more to chemicals at what my grandfather routinely called “The Magic Shop.” Shamrocks speckled the decor of their home, along with Irish crafting like Lenox and the very cherished and hard-won collection of Waterford crystal in the china cabinet. A claddagh hung above the front door and decorated the fingers of my grandmother and several other members of our family.

My grandparents were of small stature, though my grandfather was known as the biggest little man on his street. That’s because of The Look, the dead-level glare he could toss in an instant when his temper had been raised. Never his voice. Only his temper, and The Look. It struck fear in the hearts of the sons who stood near a foot above his snowy head and grew twice as broad as he.

Formidable, too, was my grandmother, made from four feet and eleven inches of the strongest stuff on earth. She would tell my 6’4″ father to sit down so she could hit him. And he’d do it. When his father died, he knelt on the floor to hug her, and it put them eye to eye for the first time since he was a young boy.

My grandfather’s funeral program bore a Celtic cross on green paper. Three years later, when we bid goodbye to my grandmother, the claddagh familiar from the front door of their home once again both welcomed friends and family and silently wished a happy homegoing. But her program was pink, because she broke from tradition just enough to favor that color over most. Love, loyalty and friendship… in her trademark way.

Since my mother comes from German stock, the half-joking confrontations over national pride were storied. My father loved to poke at my mother’s mother about it, mostly because she always bit (though he would have, too, had she been the one to start it). There is a long-told story of my toddlerhood, when as I sat in my high chair, my father and my mother’s mother argued over which side I belonged to more.

“She’s German,” my grandmother pronounced.

“She’s Irish,” said my father.

It went on until, fed up, I ended it in two-year-old (stubborn from both lineages) fashion. “I not German. I not Irish. I cute!

And neither a one could argue.

My father calls St. Patrick’s Day “amateur night,” and if I don’t wear green on March 17th and people give me a hard time about it, I remind them that I’m Irish every day and have nothing to prove, though it’s really because my wardrobe holds little of it. I celebrate the date by laughing riotously about things nobody else understands, and being stubborn. And I get rather viscerally hacked off if I see someone wearing orange, since it’s greatly offensive to Irish Catholics like myself (as you may know, the Ulsters were Orangemen and opposed everything the Southern Irish Catholics ever said or did until the rivers ran red). This is why I am not a Syracuse fan.

The one way in which I’m a true disappointment to my clan is that I’m not much of a beer drinker, preferring instead vodka or wine. But last St. Patrick’s Day I had my very first Guinness and I liked it quite well. Well enough that it serves as my Facebook profile picture on this day. Well enough, in fact, that I’d love to name a dog after it, should it have the right color coat. I don’t much care whose dog it is, though best if it were mine.

My family is filled with Daniels and Patricks, down through the generations. The girls, too, bear the names of Eire, a tribute to the beauty and lure of her charms. My name is not so Irish, but for the last. But in the end, that’s what matters most to our people: Irish to the last.

Dear Readers: May you have all the happiness
and luck that life can hold…
And at the end of all your rainbows
May you find a pot of gold.

Beannachtaí na Féile Pádraig! (Happy St. Patrick’s Day!)

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18 thoughts on “Love, Loyalty and Friendship: The Very Brief History of An Irish (American) Family

  1. As a true Irish lass, I don’t hold much stock in wearing (or drinking) things made of green today. As you say, it is a year-long legacy. I had the privilege of visiting Dublin once and I can tell you the Guinness tastes smoother and more mellow in the motherland. While my fellow students were doing the pub crawl, however, I was doing a cathedral crawl – and I am certain I have more (if not better) memories of the weekend than they had.

  2. Lovely post. I too have the Irish blood mixed with the German and probably a lot more. My family also landed long ago in PA but subsequently ended up in Canada. But we all get to be Irish at least one day a year–today. So I’ll toast you with a beer this day. And now I have a good response when someone asks me what my lineage is. I can now say, I’m not anything, I’m just cute!

  3. I joke that I come from the two most oppressed peoples on the planet: the Irish and Native Americans. We are very proud of both sides of our ancestry and, like you, don’t make such a fuss about wearing green. Columbus Day isn’t much celebrated either . . .

    • Both sides certainly had their ill treatment! I don’t think we Irish are too put-upon these days, though. Sheer numbers! I am wearing green today – I managed to find something. But… no Guinness.

  4. And a Happy St. Patrick’s to you. I’m told I have some Irish blood but I’m a true mongel … at least eight nationalities. Perhaps the clue is that I love beer. Here in California, the day, particularly on the weekend, is an excuse for people to start drinking early then drive home late. Not my favorite day, therefore. I enjoyed reading your post and getting to know you just a little more. And I love to read about your family. I may have to post about mine.

    • The part about starting early and leaving late is true. I was driving home after work and wondering why the guy in front of me couldn’t stay in his lane when I remembered it was St. Patrick’s Day. I guess some people don’t work til 11pm on holidays!

  5. I am Irish and German also, with a wee bit of Swedish thrown in for good measure. I don’t necessarily celebrate St. Patrick’s day, but I did this year. Although no alcholic beveridges for me at all anymore 😦 I’m not allowed medically.

    Hope you had a great day!!

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