According to the Census Bureau, nearly 35 million Americans claim Irish ancestry.
No such records are kept for those of us who are Irish merely by marriage, though we may be no less worthy of attention, and even some sympathy on a day like today.
I was married on St. Patrick’s Day eve. The hymn was Irish. Yeats wrote the poem. Little girls in ivory and green dresses danced to a ceilidh band of fiddles and flutes. Whiskey flowed.
For a moment, I mistook the bagpipe band my husband hired as a nod to my own Scottish ancestry, but even the pipers were Irish, named after Brian Boru, the first high king of Ireland, who kicked the Vikings out of Dublin but was killed with an ax while he prayed for a victory in the Battle of Clontarf in 1014.
This is the sort of thing you learn when you marry into an Irish family.
Also, you learn not to mention your British ancestors.
At the time, I thought this was just a wedding theme, but it has lasted well into the marriage. The Earl Grey tea I used to drink in the morning has been replaced by Barry’s Classic Blend. Friends now give gifts of Waterford crystal and books covered with shamrocks and harps. Toasts are stolen from James Joyce and “The Quiet Man.”
Our children’s names have been chosen from histories of little known Irish saints, even though my Swedish Methodist forebears wouldn’t have gone in for that kind of thing. It’s getting harder to find names that haven’t already been taken by the older cousins, and their pets, and yet one never considers going the other way, with perhaps a Gustav or a Greta. Irishness trumps everything else.
This is why you meet so many boys these days named Connor, with last names as varied as Pedersen, Morgenstern, Schmidt, Kwiatkowski and Blatz. Forget about the French-Canadian fur trappers on your mother’s side or the grandmother who fled the pogrom or the other one who knew the czar. If you have anyone on your side who came over on the boat from Cork, this is where the family story will focus.
Those of us who are Irish by marriage do not fault them for this.
We love the Irish. If we could be any ethnicity in the world, we’d choose to be Irish. That’s probably why we married Irish people in the first place. They’ve got incredible scenery, romantic ruined abbeys, music that makes your bones shake, more coffee-table books than you could ever keep up with at Christmas, not to mention Colin Farrell’s eyebrows.
Irish women have Maureen and Scarlett O’Hara as patronesses. Irish men can recite poetry at will (though most of it does have to do with 800 years of English oppression). What’s not to love about that kind of commitment to clan?
Of course, that’s kind of the rub. Because when it comes to stoking the ancestral fires, the Irish put most other immigrant groups to shame.
If you’re German, as most Minnesotans used to be, you’re probably lucky if you know whether your ancestors came from Westphalia, Saxony or Bavaria. If you’re Swedish or Norwegian, you might know only that your people set sail from Stockholm or Oslo.
But if you’re Irish, you know exactly which county you come from, and the parish, too. In fact, you’ve probably been there. Several times. There’s even a good chance you keep up a lively e-mail correspondence with the priest.
The rest of us just can’t keep up with that.
I was reflecting on all of this on our second trip to Ireland in an 18-month period, during which we ate Irish food, listened to Irish music, read more Irish history and met more Irish people. I suggested that everyone’s family tree would be just as fascinating, if there were all the time in the world to study it.
I brought up a 17th century British ancestor of mine who founded a city in Massachusetts and whose sons fought in the Revolutionary War; and the Swedish great-grandparents who kept a cow on Minnehaha Creek. I told the story of how my great-great-grandmother, the one who raised my grandfather, may have changed the course of American history with a letter she wrote at the age of 11, suggesting to Abraham Lincoln that he grow whiskers.
My husband and his daughter just rolled their eyes at my pathetic attempt to compete.
“Admit it,” he said. “You’re just jealous you’re not Irish.”
Maybe that’s what it’s really about, especially on a day like today, when everyone with a tiny drop of Eire in their veins can fill up their lungs and crow about it until the bars close. For those of us who are merely Irish by marriage, it is not easy to be so close, and yet so far.
At least the kids will be Irish.
And as we Irish in-laws are often told, that and the land are all that count.
Originally published in the Pioneer Press, 3/17/05