Thursday, March 16, 2017

Guinness Isn't Green!

Guinness Isn’t Green!

“I don’t go out on St. Patrick’s Day. That’s when the amateurs come out.” My uncle Tom used to say.

St. Patrick’s Day was once a celebration of Irish heritage. Now, it’s just an excuse to drink green-colored American beer. Well, at least that’s what it is in America, in some places. To me, it was this day where being Irish meant something to the rest of the world. I never bought into the idea that everyone is Irish on St. Patrick’s Day, any more than everyone is a bunny on Easter Sunday. But, growing up in a household with Irish heritage, it was always a big deal.

Growing up with an Irish last name means that you’re aware of your ancestry from a very young age.

When you ask, “What are we?”  

The answer is always the same, “We’re Irish.”

It was never, “Irish-American,” just, “Irish.”

None of my living relatives have been to Ireland (except one of my nephews from one of my half-sisters). None of us speak Irish (though I knew a few words and phrases). Mom had this thing about corned beef. I’ve read James Joyce (don’t know if we’re related. Knowing would put too much pressure on me) and yet there’s this chain that stretches back to Ireland.

I run the risk of sounding contradictory here. While I’m proud of my heritage, I’ve always had an affinity for Britain. Why not love both islands? I certainly do. I don’t begrudge any race or nation. Though the relations between the two haven’t been stellar over the centuries, I think things have settled down in recent years. Had I been born in Ireland, maybe my views would be different. I could have been fiercely nationalistic. Then again, I may have adopted the pragmatic view of making friends with one’s neighbors, especially if they have a better chocolate.

When I was a teenager, I did some massive research in Irish history, and my family tree. It turns out that there’s this legend about a William De Jorce, who came over the Channel with William The Conqueror. After they took England, De Jorce pushed west into Ireland. He went so far west that he almost fell off the map! He settled in Galway, located on the coast, and then had a massive brood of kids. This then became the ancestral home of the Joyce family.

Centuries later, my paternal grandfather fought at D-Day, the invasion of Normandy. He was either fighting Nazis, or just trying to get back home. The jury is still out on that one. For the record, no on in my family speaks French.

There is also a story about a Richard Joyce, a master metalsmith. With insufficient funds to afford a proper wedding, Joyce went overseas to make his fortune. But before he left, he gave his beloved a very special ring. She was to wear it as an engagement ring until her hubby-to-be returned to the shores of Ireland. There was a bit of a delay on that. Richard was on a ship attacked by pirates. His life hung in the balance, when he convinced the salty seadog captain to spare his life.

His reason, “True love.”

The pirate captain showed empathy, and then took Richard under his wing. In time, Richard himself became a pirate. He made more than enough money to go back to Ireland, and marry his beloved.

Typing it out now I realize that this is the plot The Princess Bride. I have no doubt the pirate was named Roberts, and was indeed dread.

But what about that special ring Richard gave to his girlfriend?

It was a very special design; featuring two hands holding either side of a heart. Above the heart is a crown. Yes, it’s the Claddagh ring. It doesn’t get any more Irish than that. Properly, the crown faces the floor is one is single. It faces toward upward, toward oneself, if spoken for. My mother always wore her ring the wrong way, because she preferred how it looked. Oddly enough, it wasn’t until after my parents’ divorce that she started to wear one.

                        Then of course are the exploits of James Joyce, which I frankly don’t have enough room to recount here. Again, I’m not sure I’m related to any of these guys. I have this funny feeling that when I eventually go to Ireland, people’s eyes will bug out when they hear my last name, after hearing my accent.

            “Wha’ they done ta youse? Ya talk like them Americans!”

            Which brings me to a point that’s always bothered me. How Irish is someone that wasn’t born in Ireland? What claim do I have to say I’m Irish? I know several Italians that weren’t born in Italy, yet they feel just as Italian as I do Irish. This then brings up the whole concept of ethnicity, and how we define it.

            If ethnicity is simply defined as people with a common heritage, language, customs and history…then it’s sort of all over the map. Millions of Irish people emigrated to the Commonwealth nations; Canada, Australia, New Zealand, etc. Of course, there’s millions more that came to America. After that point the waters get a bit muddy. There’s this genetic link, so to speak, but the language and accents change after that point. Not all the Irish immigrants spoke English, but a lot of them did. As for a shared history and heritage…well, the heritage is there. But how many people of Irish descent know the history?

            In this case, does one’s ethnicity hinge entirely on where they were born? Perhaps it hinges on something beyond geography. Maybe it’s where one’s heart lies? The strange thing about America is that everyone who is here came from somewhere else. Or at least their ancestors did. The only true Native Americans were those that descended from the indigenous peoples that were here centuries before Jamestown. In that case, Geronimo is more of an American than I ever will be. I’m just sort of squatting on his turf.

            There’s also the concept of heritage being mixed.

            As we say in Pittsburgh, “You’re a Heinz 57.” But as Bill Murray remarked in Stripes, “There is no dog more lovable, more loyal, than a mutt.”

            I’m of Irish, Welsh, Austrian, Czech, and God-knows-what-else ancestry. Yet, I’ve always identified as Irish. It’s easier to say Irish, than it is to drag out everything. But also, it’s heritage that was always reinforced.

            I wasn’t raised Catholic, so that tends to confuse people as well. You don’t have to be Catholic to be Irish, but it does help. There is certain element of Catholicism I like, and others that I don’t share. I don’t believe I’d raise my children Catholic, if I ever have any. I’m perfectly content to be secular, and yet have a spiritual side. Though, I think to many Irish-Americans (there’s that phrase again) the majority are Catholic-lite. Though at one time you were more likely to see photos of John F. Kennedy in the home, than you were The Pope. My paternal grandparents had both The Last Supper, and a commemorative plate of JFK mounted on their dining room walls. That speaks volumes, I think. Kennedy was our guy, and he still is. You learn that from a young age as well.

            But for me, the real Irish heroes were the people who came before Kennedy. They were the ones that fled from famine with nothing to their names. They went to places they hadn’t been before, and made lives for themselves. That, to me at least, is what makes me Irish. It’s that strong stubbornness to not give up. That goes beyond language, geography, and the ages. A race of people that were dying, refused to die. They fought back, and survived. Their descendants are in every corner of the globe. That’s Biblical, in a way. It’s also proof that a shamrock can grow anywhere.

            Speaking of shamrocks. There’s this plastic sun catcher that belonged to my mother. It’s in decent shape, but a bit old. Yet, I hung it up when I moved into my new place. It hangs in the front window, and is always illuminated during daylight hours. It was hung in our kitchen window, even when it wasn’t St. Patrick’s Day. It will hang in that window no matter what day it is. It only comes down again when I move. It hung it up for a great many reasons; honoring my mother’s memory was one of them. Showing that I survived her death is another.

            So, Charlie Brown. That’s what St. Patrick’s Day means to me.

            Now, cue up some Loreena McKennitt, Dropkick Murphys, Flogging Molly, The Pogues, Van Morrison, and House of Pain. U2? Feck no! You put that CD on, and it goes out the bloody window! You still haven’t found what you’re looking for? Well, you’ve had thirty years to find it, Bono, ya pretentious jackeen!

Copyright Riley Joyce 2017


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