An Irishman comes home, without leaving.

17 03 2010

I do a lot of teaching. Consciously or not, I’m teaching my daughters something in almost every single interaction we have. Usually for the better, sometimes for the worse, they learn from everything I say and do. Shoot-from-the-hip teaching, you might call it. These days, however, the curriculum I’m teaching has been rigorously — and often painfully — refined.

In elementary school, I kind of liked the special projects that promised something more interesting than reading from the text books and taking tests. But the annual social studies project on family history was not on my list of favorites. While other kids gave presentations on German, Russian, French, English, Dutch, Czech, and Italian culture, and ties to Ellis Island were particularly prized, all I had to talk about was being Irish.

In the early 1980s, Irish culture, as seen in America, was almost exclusively focused on parodies of drunken, foolish men dressed entirely in green shamrock clothing, songs in thick accents, and stories of starvation, oppression and ignorance. The chief Irish exports of the day were targets of lampooning, corrupt Boston politics, extreme views on birth control and sectarian violence. I never once heard someone speak fondly of Irish culture outside of a parade. In short, it was an inglorious time for the Irish on a global stage.

I was jealous of the kids with English heritage (cool ties to the Revolutionary War); French (cool sounding language); Russian (Iron Curtain mystique); German (Berlin Wall intrigue) and others. What could I point to as an Irish kid? Paddy Wagons were named derisively after us. We were blowing ourselves up in Belfast. Everyone assumed we were all alcoholics. Not good.

Somewhere around age 13 that changed. I picked up a free tabloid rag targeted to the Irish American community in Western Mass outside a store one night. Inside those grubby pages with the ink rubbing off the cheap newsprint at the slightest touch, I discovered a whole new world.

It told me that my county had the most residents with direct, one-generation ties to Ireland in the state. That Massachusetts had the largest number of people claiming Irish descent in the nation. That we — the people who had left Ireland in the last 200 years and their descendants, but still identified ourselves as Irish — had a name.

The Diaspora.

We were wanderers. Forced out by circumstance but still holding “The Old Country” in our hearts. A romantic notion, to be sure, but what a notion! Suddenly I did not belong to something not worth remembering. I was displaced! I was one of Ireland’s lost sons. My people were proud of me. We were still a tribe.

That was it — I was hooked. From that moment on, my Irish bloodlines became a source of fiercely defended pride. I read about the potato famine and the diaspora. I bought magazines like Hibernia and read articles about dual citizenship. I studied family trees and talked to my grandfather, the de facto repository of all family knowledge. I sought out Irish music and language and books and the underpinnings of things like knots, sweaters, whiskey and instruments like the uillean pipes and the bodhran. I learned about the relationships between the Irish and the Scotts and studied my Scottish connections. I came to think of myself as an Irishman and to describe my ancestry, more accurately, as Celtic.

The mid-90s seemed to confirm my feelings as a wave of pro-Celtic sentiment swept the world. Riverdance presented Irish music that had nothing in common with “Danny Boy” even if Michael Flately did get silly by the end.  Mel Gibson introduced Scotland’s folk hero to the world and suggested that Scotts were not only fun, they were hardcore. And Sting and Mark Knopfler started recording with The Chieftains.

After years of ignorance, I was secure in my identity. That is, until one day at a family gathering. My then brother-in-law was born to parents who had immigrated from Ireland in the 70s. These people were freakin’ Irish and therefore very cool. I felt a kinship there without even thinking about it. Indeed, he even had a curious hint of a brogue in his south-of-Boston speech. It was all going quite well, until someone mentioned to his father that I, too, was Irish.

“Well,” said his father in a friendly tone, “is he Irish? Or is he Irish American?”

I was not in the room at the time. That was fortunate. Because though I took little offense at first, this question would soon develop into a stinging rebuke of my identity from someone I considered an insider and compatriot.

After years of loyalty and identity, I had been rejected by my countrymen.

To say this bothered me is an understatement. I felt like the combat veteran who rejoins his unit after being wounded only to find himself an outsider among friends who have seen campaigns and suffered hardships that he has not. I still loved my culture, still embraced it, still felt I belonged. But now I was second-class. Irish came from Ireland, it seemed. I came from Massachusetts.

This hurt and confused me for quite a while. With time, though, came perspective. Yes, my family had left. They had said “enough and no more” and struck out for new shores. Just as I had left home for college to find my own way, so had they. I had continued their tradition.

Without the support of hearing the old language, living amongst the history, being steeped in the culture, we, I, had maintained our roots. But we forged a new identity in a new land as well. We kept the old ties but made new ways and new customs. We kept the culture alive — and ourselves — by allowing it to change with the world. We were the new generations, the new faces, of the Irish. Ambassadors to our past, stewards of our future. We are still a tribe.

So no, Mr. Flynn, I am not Irish. I am Irish American. I am the hybrid, the bridge between two worlds. I am the traveler who remembers the way home. I teach my children Gaelic and we cook Irish foods. We remember where our ancestors were born and we love it. But we were born here. We say the Pledge of Allegiance, we cheer on the Fourth of July, and we fly the Stars and Stripes high, proudly and fiercely. We are Irish. We are the diaspora. But we are also Americans. We are still a tribe.

And by the way, not for anything, but when you left Ireland and moved here permanently, you became Irish-American too. You’re very welcome.