(Stream of consciousness post.)
I think most of us have moments that are seared into our memory. The moments are often breaking news items or events that change the trajectory of our life. For my generation, one of those moments is the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster.
There is another, lesser-known moment that is still clear to me. It’s 1988. I’m sitting in front of the television, and I’m watching the news. I’m not sure if I did this often back then, but there I was watching the national news. They show footage of an attack happening at a cemetery, and then a crowd of people chasing the attacker and overcoming him.
I didn’t understand what was going on at the time. Almost twenty-five years later I still don’t understand. Sure, I’ve read up on what took place that day at Milltown Cemetery, and I understand better the context and culture. That doesn’t mean I have a better grasp of it. In fact, the more I know, the more I realize I don’t know anything about what was going on with The Troubles.*
*Quick primer on The Troubles. For roughly thirty years, it was an “ethno-political” conflict in and around Northern Ireland. Over 3,500 died due to The Troubles, with over 1,800 of those being civilians.
Maybe it’s different for other Irish Americans, but for me growing up Irish in America there wasn’t extensive schooling on my heritage. It pretty much stuck with American stereotypes of Ireland.
Eat potatoes. Wear green. Get angry. Drink Guinness. Like U2. Mock England. This is all it takes to be Irish in America, apparently.
Me? I was even “more Irish” because of my last name. (Murphy) And, my grandfather, who I was named after, was an Irish immigrant so that makes me not that far removed, by American standards, from Ireland. I know there are other nationalities in my lineage, but all I’ve been told, incessantly, is “Irish” because of “carrying on my grandfather’s name”.
So, I should love St. Patrick’s Day in all its glory…right? Not exactly. I think back to Milltown Cemetery. I think of The Troubles, the conflict between Protestant Unionists and Catholic Nationalists in and around Northern Ireland.
I have no understanding of The Troubles. I’ve read up on it, listened to people talk about it, watched films about it, but I still don’t know. I’m not going to pretend to either.
St. Patrick’s Day comes along, and all of a sudden everyone is Irish. People want to drink, because that’s what Americans think the Irish do all the livelong day. For all the apparent love of Ireland, a majority of Irish in America don’t seem to care about its history. I mean, who wouldn’t want to drink green beer to honor the nation that was once described as “the old sow that eats its farrow”.*
*Thanks for that bit of literary work, James Joyce.
I know, you might think I’m being way too dramatic about this. I should just relax because I grew up in America. I grew up in the heartland. Eat, drink, and be merry.
I have a hard time when it comes to this topic.
It is difficult because I know there is a reality. A reality behind the facade of drinking today. It’s something I think about not only today, but throughout the year. And again, maybe it’s because I was reminded of my “Irish” heritage because of being my grandfather’s namesake. He died a few years before I was born. I was the reminder of him for many.
I think for most of us there is longing to know who we are and where we come from in this world. I think this happens even more so for immigrant families. For me, who was named after someone I never event met, but was continually told about him in glowing admiration, had me wanting to understand better.
Victor Hugo said, “Do we really know the mountain when we do not know the cavern?” People often don’t want to deal with reality, especially when it comes to their own family and history. You can see this in nations as well. With Ireland, we like the scenic landscapes, the native music, and cultural charm it has. Rarely does anyone process the darkness laced throughout its history. Americans skim the surface or make light of the poverty and violence when it comes to Ireland.* I wanted to know the caverns of my heritage and not just the mountain.
*I know people who like the rendition of “Sunday Bloody Sunday”, from Rattle and Hum, because of the Enniskillen bombing that amped up the band’s performance of the song. “Man, that version of ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’ is awesome!” Never mind the bombing killed twelve people.
Saying I’m Irish is easy. It just lumps everything together. I remember asking someone once why more people didn’t wear orange on St. Patrick’s Day, and the response was it didn’t matter. It’s all one in the same when it comes to Ireland, they concluded.
Try saying that in parts of Northern Ireland, and see how it comes across. I don’t regard a lot of Irish Americans as an authority on Ireland or Northern Ireland.
Because what does being Irish mean? Many would say no matter where you are from on the island, you are Irish. However, others would say I don’t have Irish lineage. My grandpa was from “the north”. My grandpa was an Irish Protestant from Northern Ireland. County Down, Newtownards. Some would say since my grandpa was from Northern Ireland he was British. And, that is legitimate since Northern Ireland, along with England, Scotland and Wales, make up the United Kingdom. The thought of being considered British, over being Irish, was an interesting thought and emotion when I fully realized it.
I didn’t know of a difference between Irish and Northern Irish, and their representative colors, until after I left high school. A random person clued me into this fact. And really, why the heck should I care. I’m an American, right?
Growing up, I instinctively thought I should support one side of the The Troubles, until I understood better my family origin. In America, it is instinctive to side against the British because of America’s independence from England. As I got older, and understood that my heritage was actually the British side, it forced me to understand better what The Troubles were. And, as I try and understand more, I realize I can’t fully understand it.
Hard to understand why grown adults would shout epithets and try and intimidate Catholic children from attending school, just because they weren’t Protestant. Hard to understand why answering the question “Pepsi or Coke” wrong might get your home firebombed. Hard to understand “peace lines” which are really high concrete walls topped with barbed wire to separate Catholics and Protestants in neighborhoods.
I hope and pray for continued peace, forgiveness and moving forward.
The past few years on St. Patrick’s Day I have been wearing orange instead of green. Omaha has a number of Irish Catholics. There’s usually a comment of, “Hey, you’re Irish! You should be wearing green.” And I reply, “Yeah, I am Irish. Irish Protestant. They are represented by the color orange.” More often than not, their eyes glaze over as I try to explain.
Wearing orange is not meant to be an affront to Irish Catholics. My firstborn’s middle name is in honor of Saint Patrick. For me, wearing orange is trying to identify, somewhat, with my heritage. If St. Patrick’s Day in America is about (in theory) honoring your Irish heritage and culture, then I try and do that in my own little way.
I have yet to visit Ireland or Northern Ireland. Obviously, I would like to some day. I’m sure I’ll see some of the more popular destinations for travelers. I’ll want to make it to Newtownards in County Down. And, I’d like to get off the beaten path about it. However, I think I’d also like to make it to Milltown Cemetery. Because you can’t know the mountain when you don’t know the cavern.
Thanks for reading.