As I have described here before, all of my Irish Catholic relatives (and there were a lot of them; both my maternal grandfather and my father came from large families) disowned my family because we were heathens and going straight to hell.
I grew up not identifying as Irish at all. The extended family that did embrace my brother and me was my maternal grandmother's. They were of French and English descent and could trace their American roots to the Revolutionary War. That was the heritage I identified with, since that was the world that welcomed me.
My father stopped going to Mass early on, in solidarity with my mother against his family. He continued to identify strongly as Irish, though. And St. Patrick's Day was a big deal. We didn't go to the parade, because even back then it tended to be a drunken clustermess, but my father would come home from work bearing green-carnation corsages for my mother and me. My mother, whose grasp of Irish culture was not deep, would do her best to get into the spirit; she would overcook corned beef and cabbage and serve us green mashed potatoes and a green cake, which my brother and I tried to enjoy but had difficulty not associating with mold.
As I grew into adolescence, I came to loathe everything Irish. This was partly rebellion against my father, and partly resentment of the aunts, uncles and cousins who snubbed us and shared intimate inside jokes at the few large family events we attended. I was annoyed when people assumed, because of my name, that I attended Catholic school or had celebrated my first communion.
One St. Patrick's day I dressed in orange from my hair ribbon to my socks, just to prevent everyone from wishing me the top of the mornin' and, as a bonus, to get a rise out of my father.
He was hurt and angered well beyond my expectation. I hadn't really understood or thought through the symbolism of my act, and when I think about it now I am deeply ashamed of my arrogant teenage self.
My attitude softened over the years. As adults, some cousins reached out to my brother and me, and we count them now among our dearest friends. I have studied enough Irish history, and know enough about group psychology, to sympathize with the clannishness and insularity of an historically oppressed group, and to understand the fear and feelings of betrayal that ensue when a member strays outside the group. I'm not angry anymore.
But I also don't feel truly Irish, not in the way my father did and my cousins do, and not in the way that Ben does.
The first time we visited Dublin, when he was about fourteen, he fell in love with the city. He said it felt like home, in a way that the US (or any of the other European cities we had visited) never did. He loved the lack of pretension; the way everyone looked "real," as he put it—heavy people, thin people; few expensively dressed or coiffed; and nearly everyone we encountered quick with a smile and self-deprecating wit. He loved the music in the pubs, and the feeling of camaraderie as everyone chatted and joined in the songs. He was deeply affected by the history communicated through the tours we took, and by the poetry and depth of feeling in the plays we saw at the Abbey.
That feeling of identification and love has only grown through the years since then, and every time we go back he restates his ambition to live there one day. Which is why, he says, he refuses to celebrate St. Patrick's Day. He feels it is a demeaning American invention, making the Irish look like drunken, homophobic buffoons, and he doesn't want any part of it.
Last year, he wore a green soccer jersey on the day, and when I pointed out that his attitude seemed to have shifted, he gasped in horror and ran back into his room to change. He had been thinking only of the team he was supporting in a game that day, but even his team wasn't worth being seen as celebrating that disgusting travesty.
Mostly, I'm relieved that nobody expects me to produce green cake. But lately I have found myself wondering what my dad would make of it all.
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