Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Irish or not?

What does it mean to be Irish in America?

That's topic enough for a book or two.

I'm Irish enough. My maternal grandfather left County Roscommon for the coal mines of England and then to to the U.S., Denver by way of New York and  Chicago. My paternal grandfather's grandfather was a Potato Famine escapee whose original name was O'Shea. My aunt, Patricia Lee Shay, tracked the immigration of our ancestors from Ireland to upstate New York to Iowa over the course of 20 years. Somewhere along the line, the family changed its surname to Shay. Our guess was that Shay is less Irish than O'Shea. Yet it's tough to hide your Irishness -- brogue, red hair, Catholicism, big family and all that.

My maternal grandmother was Agnes McDermott from what's now a suburb of Cincinnati. She motored West with some gal pals and her sister and discovered the wonders of the Rocky Mountains. When she and her sister returned home, they packed up and moved to Denver. A few years later, she met my grandfather at a Hibernian Club shindig, married, had kids and so on. As a baby, I lived in their Washington Park house with my parents. I don't remember much of that time, although it's undoubtedly locked away in my subconscious, waiting to be explored.

My paternal grandmother is the only non-Irish in the bunch. Her forebears come from England and have the surname of Green, settlers of Baltimore. Her mother was a Lee from Virginia, which makes me one of the millions of Southerners who claim they are related to Robert E. Lee, Light Horse Harry Lee and the rest of that warlike clan. I've never checked out the connection as the story itself is fun to relate and I'd hate to spoil it.

So I'm three-quarters Irish and a quarter English. Two sides at war with one another for five centuries. You could say that makes for divided loyalties but the Irish always wins out. My mother was raised on Irish stories from my grandfather's South Denver chums. Mischievous fairies and wailing banshees. Irish stories always seem to be a mixture of magic and terror, much like Irish history and Roman Catholicism. We loved it when our mother read to us but really were waiting for her banshee bedtime stories, which were more thrilling than soothing.

That's my Irish lineage. I've never been to Ireland, which seems an oversight. I've thought about going more than once but never carried through on the thought. I don't really care about looking up my Irish roots. God knows that Ireland must benefit from all of the Irish-Americans flocking in to explore their roots, looking up Great Uncle Sean and Great Aunt Molly. I'm more interested in the literature of Ireland. I'd love to be in Dublin for Bloomsday on June 16. As is the case with many English majors, I almost finished James Joyce's "Ulysses" several times. But I know the "day in the life of" story and have read enough of Joyce's penetrable works ("Dubliners," "Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man") to find the event fascinating.

Maybe next year.

I think that my need for storytelling can be traced to my Irish roots. Other cultures value stories but the Irish are almost pathological about it. Irish writers seem a cantankerous bunch. Joyce with his stream of consciousness and banned books. Sean O'Casey with his troublesome plays and Oscar Wilde with his witty plays and troublesome lifestyle. W.B. Yeats is misinterpreted as often as he is explained. Roddy Doyle has an exciting time telling stories of modern Ireland and re-examining its uprising and civil war. I don't even know most contemporary Irish writers. I hear that there's a revival in Gaelic writers. And then there are all of the U.S. and Canadian and Aussie writers with Irish roots.

It's good to be Irish. Even on St. Patrick's Day.


RobertP said...


You are all Irish to me! You ought to go to Ireland. I have not been, but my brother has (his 3rd wife is Irish) and he really enjoyed it.

Dr. Duckworth had us read Portrait of the Artist, which was a fair intro to Joyce. But have not yet attempted Ulysses. The former chairman of UMB, R. Crosby Kemper III, who is now the head of the Kansas City Library system ( and doing a fabulous job) does or has participated in Bloomsday and most certainly has read Ulysses, possible multiple times.

I will put it on the list though I know it will never live up to One Hundred Years of Solitude which I have read 3 times since you first gave it to me. And ready to start a 4th. But in your honor, I will make an attempt to tackle Ulysses.


English Major Bob

Michael Shay said...

I will finish "Ulysses" one day! And finally get to Dublin for Bloomsday.

Just finished reading 50th anniversary edition of "Catch-22." It's been awhile since I've tackled "100 Years of Solitude." Maybe it's time...