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Monday, March 17, 2014

Waking Up to My Irishness

[Originally published in 1993]

     Somehow it was hidden from me, my Irishness. It took me a long time to figure out why. I started putting the pieces together this summer, after a sixteen-year-old Irishman became part of my family.

     In the years before my awakening, I was wearing blinders but didn’t realize it. Like many American children, I enjoyed the fact that I had European roots. My father was raised in Taunton, Massachusetts, where Canadian French was spoken at home; my mother grew up in St. Michael’s, Wisconsin, where German was spoken at home. Thanks to them, I learned a smattering of colorful expressions in German and French – spicier for me (even now) than their English equivalents.

     Nearly every summer when I was growing up, we made the long car trip from our home in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to Taunton, Massachusetts, to visit Pop’s side of the family. We used the French Canadian names Mémère and Pépère for our grandmother and grandfather there.

     Mémère spoke French with ease, and referred to herself as my “French grandmother.” It’s true that Mémère’s mother’s name was Marie Maurisset, very French. But her father was Thomas McGrath. As I grew older, I became interested in my ancestors and did a bit of research. However, I found genealogy a male-oriented journey that followed rivers of name-carriers and ignored smaller feminine streams along the way. Thus I learned about Greniers (my Pépère’s side) but not about McGraths (my Mémère’s side).

     Mémère died a long time ago, and I have only a few stories I remember from her, sad stories. I don’t recall her referring to being Irish, except maybe once to mention “cabbage hill” and to say that her family came to the U.S. during the potato famine, through Prince Edward Island in Canada.

     Everything I remember from Mémère’s lips is vague – stories about her infant siblings perishing from “summer complaint” after drinking milk that had been left on a sunny doorstep – her mother dying of a broken heart after losing yet another baby – Mémère living in foster homes and digging in garbage cans for food – going to school where nuns taught her perfect embroidery – and working on sweatshop sewing machines when she was older.

     I think that for Mémère and probably for my dad, the word “Irish” meant “poor” or “looked down upon.” I believe now that Mémère was ashamed to be Irish, so she tried to erase her Irishness. Pop, in turn, emphasized only his French roots to me. He once told me that his home town was divided between French and Irish; his parents’ union was considered a mixed marriage. To blend in, Mémère became “French.” I wish now that I had asked more about her Irishness.    Sometimes Mémère’s voice became loud and bitter, she would drink and curse, and I stopped listening because it was too painful to be near her. I realize now that she left a legacy of sorrow. What she told me was sad enough; after she died, I learned that what she omitted was even sadder, beyond speaking.

     Someone once explained this phenomenon to me as generational sadness. The immigrants came to America with boat loads of horror stories. Infant mortality was a fact of life; baby quilts weren’t commonly made until well into the twentieth century. If parents had allowed themselves to feel the pain, they’d have gone crazy. So they taught themselves to push their emotions down, down, down.

     But the feelings didn’t go away. The sorrow was passed along namelessly, wordlessly to the next generation, and to the next. And with this mute grief came the “isms” we desperate humans use in our innocence and ignorance to bandage our wounds: alcoholism, materialism, fanaticism, on and on.

     The year Mémère died, I happened to see a television documentary on Northern Ireland. The film showed young boys and girls who were growing up hard and hating in an environment of broken glass and rocks. Bombs and guns. I watched the images on the screen and felt as if my guts were being chewed. Suddenly, the nameless thing that had been hidden came to life for me. Part of me was Irish; the hurt and hatred on the screen was part of my story. The faces of those children figured into the generational sadness that Mémère bequeathed to me without speaking of it.

     Last July, these feelings came to life in the form of a sixteen-year-old dark-haired, green-eyed student named Michael Uprichard, who traveled from Northern Ireland to live with my family. Michael and nineteen other Belfast-area teens were matched with Milwaukee-area host families for one month as part of the Ulster Project, a grassroots peacemaking effort.

     Although we were new to it, the Ulster Project has been around for a while. In 1975, Reverend Kerry Waterstone founded it as an ecumenical peace program involving boys and girls fourteen to sixteen years old from Belfast’s Roman Catholic and Protestant faith communities. I explain to my friends, “We bring ‘em to Milwaukee, mix ‘em up for a month, then send ‘em back home.” Follow-ups indicate the effort is working; Northern Irish teens who participate in the Ulster Project keep their inter-denominational friendships and avoid paramilitary groups when they return to Belfast.

     At first I wanted our family to be part of the Project because it was part of peace-making. However, that motivation became less and less important as I got to know Michael more and more. I came to think of him as an uncorrupted young adult. He’s a Protestant who was matched with our family because, although my husband Mike and I were raised Catholic, we currently attend a Protestant church with our children.

     Michael enjoys his cultural heritage, including traditional music and the Irish language – which are typically part of the Catholic learning experience in Northern Ireland. From the start of his visit, he talked intelligently and articulately about “the Troubles” he’s lived with all his life. He compared Irish sectarian violence to U.S. gang fighting; I got a whole new perspective on a problem that has many explanations but no easy solution. He taught us about the I.R.A. (the Catholic Irish Republican Army) and the U.V.F. (the Loyalist/Protestant terrorists). We learned that “Catholic” and “Protestant” signify political, more than religious, divisions in Northern Ireland.

     With his typical humor and fairness, Michael said things like, “I applied for a job at Pizza Hut but the I.R.A. blew it up; so they were only lookin’ for people to scrape mozzarella off the road. Then the U.V.F. killed four people in five days because they were Catholic. The U.V.F. said it’s because they were in the I.R.A. but that’s a load of b.s.”

     Michael is easy-going, and he blended perfectly with our family (he called us “slightly mad” or “several pork pies short of a picnic”). As the hot days of July passed, we grew comfortable with one another, joking and poking good-natured fun. Michael and I had long talks that turned from bombs and politics to the simpler everyday things that make the world go ‘round for ordinary people: weather, jobs, music, food, school, customs, families, accents, slang, philosophy, relationships, stars in the sky. I knew Michael had become one of my kids when I, all smiles, kicked him in the seat of his pants for a sassy remark he had made, all smiles too.

     Michael played with our little Anna, hung out at a local restaurant with our older son Charlie; partied with our son Brian, who was Michael’s teen host; went fishing with my husband Mike; and talked to our cats in his gentle Irish tones. What began as a “project” transformed into something more lasting and certainly more authentic: a friendship.

     I was nearly lulled by all the fun and normalcy into forgetting what the Ulster Project was all about when, toward the end of July, someone in the Project told me about the Belfast tradition of kneecapping: shooting or drilling someone’s knee if he refuses to join a paramilitary group. The victim often never walks again. Horrified, I asked Michael if he will be in danger of being kneecapped back home. He assured me that since he lives right outside Belfast, he shouldn’t be threatened.

     The day we sent Michael back to Belfast, we all drank “tearwater tea,” to quote Arnold Lobel. I mean, we drowned in tears. The scene at the airport was worse than a funeral, a mess of red eyes, with wailing and weeping of teenage boys and girls, moms and dads, little brothers and sisters. We had to practically be torn apart when it was time for the plane to depart.

     “I’ll miss you so much,” Michael said, hugging me.

     I love you so much, I thought but couldn’t say it. He knew, anyway. How close folks can grow in one short month. How easy to shed our walls when we know our time together is brief.

     In the weeks since then, I’ve experienced a grieving I never anticipated and would have doubted had someone warned me. When Michael left, I lost a son and a friend. The pain of missing him was compounded by worry. I pushed the worry aside because I knew it wouldn’t do any good. But still the pain got screaming bad. I became so depressed that down looked up to me. I knew I had to channel my grieving or I’d cease to be able to function.

     So I turned to my Irish roots. I listened to Irish music. I went to the library and gobbled up everything I could find about Ireland – biographies and folklore and history. I drank another ocean of tearwater tea when I learned the truth about the potato famine: that the disaster that forced my Catholic ancestors to these shores was created not only by nature, as I had been taught, but by humans as well. The accounts I read about British treatment of the Irish were nearly as cruel as anything I’ve learned about the treatment of Native Americans by the Europeans who took over this continent.

     At Milwaukee’s Irish Fest the following August, I spent an hour arguing with an Irish Republican Army supporter, then another hour digging in the genealogy booth. I learned that McGrath is a name from the north of Ireland. Now I’m studying Irish Gaelic, and through this strange and beautiful language, unraveling some of the mysteries that were kept from me for so long. The language holds many clues into the Irish “personality.” For example, “Good day” in Irish, translated, is “God be with you,” and takes a response of “God and Mary be with you.” The basis of Irish culture is faith.

     In my Gaelic class I met a woman who, like me, has been on a journey of discovery through her Irish roots. She recommended a book called Healing the Family Tree. Inspired by the book, she and her father went to Irish sections of Boston and learned about the who and why of their family’s hardships and shortcomings. Together they prayed for each family member and ancestor they came to “know.” She told me that she witnessed a miracle: a dramatic change in her own father.

     My life has been so full of miracles that I count on them. My friend Donna Eddy says that “coincidence” is God’s middle name. It’s no coincidence that I, a non-TV person, happened upon that documentary about Northern Ireland thirteen years ago – and found the images that began my awakening. It’s no coincidence that I learned about the Ulster Project, a quiet endeavor with probably the least publicity in the world.

     It’s no coincidence that Michael blended in with my family in his gentle way, bringing a human dimension to all my wonderings about Ireland. And it’s no coincidence that Michael is unburdened by prejudice, standing up for nonviolence at every turn. I know that even as I uncover harsh truths about Ireland past and present, Michael will be my “conscience” and keep me from hating. What good would it do for me to hate the British people who are the descendants of the oppressors of my ancestors? Little did I guess that the lessons of the Ulster Project would rub off on me!

     Although I may never make the physical journey to Ireland, I’m sure I’ll complete the pilgrimage into the past that I have begun. I’ll do it for Mémère. I’ll do it for me. I’ll do it for all the confused grandchildren of famine survivors. I’ll find words for Mémère’s unspoken legacy of sorrow, so that the generational McGrath grief work may finally begin. Perhaps what I come to understand will help my family and me, so that we’ll have less cause to drink and to curse.

     Our summer Ulster Project mirrored life itself. Like the month-long Project, the time we all have with one another is short indeed. How close we can grow – and how much fun we can have – if we shed our walls.

     I am Irish and American, Catholic and Protestant, oppressor and oppressed. How could I bear hatred for anyone? I could easily have been born into different circumstances.

     My journey must be one of peace, for I believe in the saying, “If we search far enough into our family tree, we’ll find only one root in all the world.”
[This piece is from my new book, Dessert First, available through ]

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