Irish (American) As They Come

A re-run, in honor of my Irish heritage. Up the Republic.

“On with O’Donnell then,

fight the old fight again

Sons of Tir Connell

are valiant and true

Make the proud saxon feel

Erin’s avenging steel

Strike for your country

O’Donnell Abu”

    – “O Donnell Abu” (Clan Connell War Song, c. 1843)

Here’s the thing: when you’re brought up New York Irish Catholic, life doesn’t get sugar-coated.  It may get whiskey-soaked, but it sure ain’t gussied up.

When you’re raised by people who shout “Up the Republic!” at the St. Patrick’s Day parade on New York’s Fifth Avenue, who teach you the words to IRA fight songs before you start kindergarten, and who refer to Irish Protestants only as “limey proddys” and never as anything vaguely resembling Irish lineage — trust me, there’s even less sugar. You’re sugar-free outerborough Irish.

We had a lot to be cheesed about, us Irish. We were pretty hot-blooded to begin with, if you read about our ancient history.  We got invaded — often — by the Galicians, the Vikings, and the Normans, and we fought them like hell, over and over again.  Oliver Cromwell had burned Ireland’s forests and brutally overtaken Catholic rule nearly 400 years earlier, and still, if his name was uttered in my Queens house, I was to sneer accordingly or make a show of faux-spitting on the ground. He was our Hitler. His armies had brought about our holocaust, the Great Famine, and I was never to forget it.

“Are you ready for a war?

For we are the English.

Are you ready for a war, for we are the English soldiers.

Yes, we’re ready for a war!

For we are the Irish.

Yes, we’re ready for a war, for we are the Irish soldiers.

Now we are all dead and gone, for we are the English.

Now we are all dead and gone, for we are the English soldiers.

Now we are alive again, for we are the Irish.

Now we are alive again, for we are the Irish soldiers.” — Irish children’s verse


We Celts didn’t have true surnames until the British implemented a poll tax to run us off the land, and needed a way to keep track of us. So we took the names of our warrior ancestors, who weren’t exactly mellow people. They were the Irish equivalents of that Scottish dude that Mel Gibson played — you know, when he painted his body blue and squirmed a bit while being disemboweled in front of his entire village? That guy.

But our names weren’t even our own. They were Anglicised, hacked from their lilting Gaelic roots. “O’Ceallaigh” became Kelly, “Mac Diarmuid” — son of Dermot, proud King of Connacht — was now McDermott, and so on. Our land, our livestock, our homes, even our language — no longer was ours.

It was easier, I suppose, to define our heritage with verses of “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling” and “Danny Boy” when we’d left our homeland. But that was surface Irish, the Americanized packaging of what had preceded us, so many miles away, on still-calling shores. Our past was so much more — long lineages of chieftains and pre-Christian traditions, immortal literature and proud warriors, sorrow and horror, terrible beauty and four green fields.  But many had to let it go once they left the ports of Cork and Liverpool — as steerage in steamers — if they wanted to survive.

My father’s side knew they were Irish, but they didn’t say much about it. My recent geneological research suggests that they’d been in New York City since the early 1800s, and that some of them were Five Points residents in lower Manhattan. Subject to “Irish Need Not Apply” placards on store windows, they kept quiet about their lineage, and went about their business — many of them as New York City policemen and firefighters.  I recently discovered some archived articles online from the now-defunct Brooklyn Daily Eagle, about my great-great-grandfather Bartholomew McKitty, or “Barney,” as he was called. He’d been written up for successful arrests and street fights both. As a child, I played with his policeman’s nightstick, which still sported the leather strap that allowed him to wrap it around his wrist tight for defense, or let it dance on his palm, to the delight of his children.

My mother’s people knew where they came from. We had an immigrant among us — my great-grandfather Eddie Morris — who had left Ireland at age 20 and was very proud of his homeland. He often shared his stories with his daughter and grandchildren, and even for a few short years with me, the one great-grandchild he lived long enough to see. It was he who had recited directions to our ancestors’ graveyard in his small village of Plumbridge, County Tyrone — even though he hadn’t been back to Ireland since he’d left at the turn of the century, and who gave my mother and I the chance to stand among the weathered, worn headstones and viscerally know who we were. He was my link to that island, so far and yet so near, as I bounced as a toddler on his knee to the verse:

 

“Up the airy mountain and down the rushing glen

We daren’t go a-hunting for fear of little men

Wee folk, good folk

Trooping all together

Green jacket, red cap

And white owl’s feather”

The warrior blood still runs strong in so many of us, even if the facts and dates of our history are lost to faded memory, burned record books, and mere time. I was recently visiting with one of my cousins, retired NYPD and nearing sixty, talking about another relative who had just passed the same milestone.  Several of my male relations had taken the birthday boy out for a celebration, and things had gotten a bit rowdy. “What happened?” I stupidly asked. My cousin answered, “He started shooting his mouth off, so we had to take him outside and set him straight.” Still, at sixty, this was the way to settle things. And as a forty year-old woman, I knew what “setting him straight” meant.  I’m embarrassed to say that the explanation both repelled and comforted me, because I knew the language so well.

I grew up singing about tommy guns and men dying in fields at the hands of British soldiers, of wakes and drunks, of women who stuck knives in “babbies” heads, and of bitter old widows who cheated their greedy son-in-laws out of horses and sacks of flour. I sang them loudly and slapped my knee in time to the music, as I did to children’s songs.

 

“Up the Republic, they raise their battle cry

Pearse and McDermott will pray for you on high

Eager and ready, for love of you they die

Proud march the Soldiers of the Rearguard

Legion of the rearguard, answering Ireland’s call

Hark, the march and tramp is heard from Cork to Donegal

Wolfe Tone and Emmett guide you, though your task be hard

DeValera leads you, Soldiers of the Legion of the Rearguard”

   — “Legion of the Rearguard”, IRA fight song, Jack O’Sheehan, c. 1923


As a kid, I once asked my mother what “The Red Hand of Ulster” was. I had already been schooled in the history of northern Ireland, since my great-grandfather had emigrated from County Tyrone. My mother said something along the lines of — “There were two chieftains wishing to be king of Ulster.  They raced each other on horseback to see who would win. The losing man cut his hand off with his sword and threw it far so he could say he’d gotten there first. And his blood-red hand serves as the symbol of the determination of the oppressed Irish Catholics in northern Ireland. Now finish your breakfast.”

If a six year-old kid asks someone why a flag has a bloody-red hand in the center of it, most people don’t go into gory detail. But not in my house. No, sir. Especially when it gave someone an opportunity to demonstrate the centuries of oppression and torment that our ancestors knew. To be honest, it did the trick.  It instilled in me that this was my past — not just the fighting and the drinking, but the instinct to survive, to persevere, and to thrive in the face of hopelessness.

When St. Patrick’s Day arrived, there was no “begosh and begorra” for me as a child. No shamrock stickers on my cheek. Far from it. Instead, I sported scratchy kilts, the Aran cardigans, the Claddagh brooch pinning the shamrock sprig to my coat lapel. I waited anxiously for the Fighting 69th Regiment and the proud wolfhounds to signal the start of the parade. I looked for my cousins’ faces in the FDNY Pipes and Drums, and I watched my mother dance in the living room when she thought she was alone, stepping in time to the strains of the bagpipes. We’d been kicked around by invaders, by being “dirty Irish” when we arrived in Amer-ee-kay, and by other ethnic groups who rightfully shamed our bad habits in shared tenement conditions. But still, we survived. We held on. We built cities like New York and Boston and Chicago alongside other proud immigrant groups. We wove ourselves into America’s tapestry.

Yet as the chasm widens, how Irish are we still?  At thirteen, I traveled with my parents on a harried, two-week tour of Ireland. We went south and north –  averting our gaze from the glint of automatic rifles as we passed British soldiers and gun towers at the UK border.  While visiting the Gaeltacht — a section of northwest Ireland that still speaks the ancient language of Gaelic — we heard the one word that wasn’t foreign to us — “Yank” — as a group of teenagers passed by, chattering in their native tongue. We are not natives, but why does the plight of poor Catholics in Belfast still stir such feeling in our hearts, even among those who’ve never set foot on Irish soil?

I can’t say.  But I am charged with following the thread and passing it to my children. Today, as I prepare for St. Patrick’s Day celebrations with my two kids — half-Irish and half-Jewish and rich in oppressed, proud heritages — I know the value of educating this newest generation. I can teach the past, without passing on anger and hatred.  But I can also see how the thread is fraying for that very same reason.

In reaping the benefits of our ancestors’ struggles, my husband and I have not imparted the hunger — for lack of a better word — to our children. They are Irish, Polish, Catholic and Jewish in name and on paper. But they’re all-American — for good and for bad. They’ll wear green on St. Patrick’s Day, and this might be the year I finally take them into Manhattan to see the parade in person. But they won’t feel the swell in their hearts the way I do when the pipers whine out “O’Donnell Abu” in formation down the green painted line. And they won’t know what the velvet banners spelling out CORK and DONEGAL, CAVAN and TIPPERARY mean to the people who march behind them. They’ll never know the shivery feeling of standing in a Irish Republican bar in San Francisco, as Bobby Sands’ widow brushes past them, and others nearby whisper her name so the room parts — as if Moses himself was saddled up on a nearby stool — and everyone lets her pass through in quiet reverence.

Somewhere deep within me, I had believed that letting go of the anger meant letting go of them — the generations who fought so hard for the place I hold now. My children don’t know the IRA fight songs by heart. They want for almost nothing, I’m embarrassed to say, and have thankfully been raised without the knowledge of racism and intolerance that was so shamefully prevalent only one generation ago. They can only blame themselves, and no longer an oppressor, for their misfortunes.

Which is, in truth, the very freedom my ancestors fought for, so many generations ago.  We are their long-dormant dream.  The Red Hand still flies, albeit in Bergen County, New Jersey, as my children shape their own destinies.

But if my kids ever ask me what The Red Hand means, I’ll come up with something far less disgusting.

Erin go bragh and slainte!

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Comments

  1. That was fantastic. You are a wonderful writer.

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