Nearly ten percent of Americans claim some Irish ancestry, including myself. My great-grandmother on the Benkey side, Mary Anne Lafferty, was born in Ireland most likely in one of the northern counties, according to Ancestry.com. Intertwined in my DNA, Mary Anne lives. In fact, I felt her presence nudging me towards my Irish nature and away from the much more dominant Germanic genes (no surprise there) long before my mother only recently informed me of Mary Anne’s existence.
I’m a firm believer in Carl Jung’s theory of the collective unconscious, the part of the unconscious mind which is derived from ancestral memory and experience and is common to all humankind, as distinct from the individual’s unconscious. I also believe that “ancestral memory and experience” is inherited not only from “humankind’s” experiences but also from one’s unique ethnic and racial forbears. In the corner of my unconscious where Mary Anne resides, she sings Irish folk songs, reads to me from Irish poetry and fiction, and taps Irish stepdance – all of which I found myself drawn to before I even knew I had a Great Grandmother Mary Anne. Irish culture and history, in general, have always spoken to me in ways no others have and not just around St. Patrick’s Day. My soul has never responded to Spanish, French, Italian, or any other culture the way it has to Irish culture for as long as I can remember. My only explanation for its allure is the collective unconscious.
Admittedly, my thin strands of Irish genetic material do not provide me much of a bragging right over the plastic Irish who, around St. Patrick’s Day, misrepresent Irish culture by enacting ethnic stereotypes that portray an inaccurate and often somewhat offensive image of Ireland and its culture and customs. One of my best friends from college is Dublin born – as in County Dublin, Ireland, not Franklin County, Ohio. He hated St. Patrick’s Day as it is celebrated in the States, especially the notion of green beer. Why would anyone put food coloring in a perfectly-good beer? He said, at home, they never ate corned beef and cabbage on Paddy’s Day, as he called it, and parades didn’t become common in Ireland until the 1980s after he had already emigrated to America. In fact, Paddy’s Day was a holy day of solemnity, not of bacchanalia as in the American version. Ironically, the majority of so called St. Patrick’s Day “traditions” — other than donning the green — actually are rooted in America and only occur in Ireland today in order to attract and cater to tourists’ false notions and to fatten pub owners’ purses.
You’d think that green then would be the color on my mind today; however, I’m thinking pink – as in the pink of a newborn baby girl. St. Patrick’s Day was the estimated due date for my granddaughter’s birth; however, she decided to enter the world a week early. Baby Charlee is of proud Mexican heritage on her mother’s side, so her genetic code is now intermingled with Mary Anne’s Irish, and I can’t help pondering how she represents two of arguably the most prominent cultural groups to emigrate to America and, without much question, the most persecuted.
The nativist, “America First,” Know-Nothing party of the Civil War era was born out of anti-immigration sentiment directed primarily at the wave of post-Potato Famine (1848- 1852) Irish immigrants coming to America in search of a sustainable lifestyle for themselves and their family, and it doesn’t require a history major or an overly-sensitive liberal to recognize the identical strain of xenophobia that has been directed at Mexican immigrants in recent years. These facts make me wonder what fears, hesitancies, and concerns were downloaded into Charlee’s unconsciousness on her birth day. Despite her native-born status, will she somehow intuit that she is considered the “other” by many of her fellow countrymen as her distant Irish and near Mexican ancestors must have felt? Will something inside of her cringe in history class at the mention of border walls and anti-immigration laws that were designed to keep her people out?
I know it is a politically-charged notion, and I expect many to disagree with me, but I have always considered myself an internationalist, a word whose meaning – a person who advocates or believes in cooperation and understanding between nations – and one who welcomes immigrants from all nations. These beliefs inspire all sorts of vitriol from the nationalist crowd; however, I believe it was Nick Lowe who wrote but Elvis Costello who popularized the lyric, “What’s so funny about peace, love, and understanding?” It sounds to me, oh, I don’t know . . . Christian.
I will encourage my granddaughter Charlee to proudly embrace both of these ethnic inheritances from those who, over time, have proven themselves in so many ways to be vital adherents and contributors to the American ethos — which many of we native born fail to live up to ourselves — by serving in our armed forces (Charlee’s mother is a Navy veteran), by humbly accepting often low-paying and back-breaking work that few native workers would, by assimilating into American culture while sharing much of its own, and by proving, time and time again, that, in the words of the great Irish-American bard Bruce Springsteen, America is still a “land of hopes and dreams,” and that immigrants’ sacrifices and travails can be rewarded by the elevation of each succeeding generation.
To Charlee, I say Erin Go Bragh! Viva Mexico! And Born in the U.S.A.! You are a beautiful embodiment of what we Americans once proudly boasted of: our existence as a patchwork quilt of ethnically and racially diverse people. After all, as the Indiana prophet John Mellencamp sings, “Ain’t that America?”
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