This is my lucky day.

Today means many things to me.

Today means I’m Irish. It means I’m dancing, adding whiskey to my coffee, laughing with friends and family. I’m baking soda bread and thinking about the last time I saw Sister Nora. I’m calling my mom and talking about pirate queens and planning a dream vacation. It means I’m never going to stop wanting to know more about the people who came before me.

I’ve learned a little bit more about my Irish family in the year since I wrote this. In three weeks, I’ll be in the town where my grandfather was born 101 years ago today. I’ll visit the tiny island my ancestors called home, and find the grave of my great-great grandfather John, about whom this was written:

“He might be truly described as one of ‘nature’s gentlemen,’ for he was mild of manner, of genial disposition, and most benevolent. Those traits of character came to him down through the centuries, as he was descended from a renowned family, who gave their all to the aid of Grace O’Malley, the remains of whose castles stand stiff and stout along the Western seaboard. A good neighbour, a practical Catholic and a true Irishman, he will be missed by all who knew him, but none more than the people of Clare Island, of which he was a native, and all will join in praying earnestly that the Almighty may give him the reward of an absolutely blameless life.”

Today means so many, many things.

But mainly it means I’m lucky.

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Irish-American Eyes Are Smiling

“If you’re lucky enough to be Irish, you’re lucky enough.”

It’s St. Patrick’s Day and I am celebrating not just being Irish but being an Irish-American, a lucky feat if there ever was one.

One hundred years ago today, my grandfather Patrick was born in Ireland. His birthplace was County Mayo – a part of Ireland hit worst by the famine; my family tells me it was sometimes referred to as “Mayo, God Help Us.” I don’t know how earlier generations of my family fared (yet – my ancestry research continues), but I do know they were already preparing to leave by the time Patrick was born.

In 1913, my great-grandmother Mary and her three sons left County Mayo and traveled to Queenstown, where they boarded a ship bound for America. Mary’s husband was already in the states, so she spent the week’s journey with just her three boys, all under the age of four. I’m trying to imagine a worse experience for her, but they arrived safely and started a life in Massachusetts.

Patrick is my closest tie to Ireland, but his story is also very American.  He fought in WWII as a gunner in the Army Air Corps and later became a fireman. (Is it any wonder he came from the same island as Liam Neeson with an action-star pedigree like that?) He married a girl – not Irish, but what you can do? – and had five children who share a good sense of humor and a recipe for Irish soda bread.

To be an Irish-American is to have an immigrant story like this.  Our ancestors struggled through famine and fate and sought out a better life; we were “the huddled masses yearning to break free.” Luckily, we were welcomed. I exist because of America, and I love this country that can still be welcoming.

My grandfather Patrick died before I was born, but I was raised with a healthy respect for my Irish heritage despite not knowing much about it. I’ve been to Ireland just once: in 2006, while studying in London, I took a weekend trip to Cork to visit other students abroad.  We fit nine people in a six-person hostel, and several pub visits into just a few days. It wasn’t the sort of trip that made time for searching out family history.

On our last day, we had a few hours to spare and wanted to get near the water. The hostel attendant recommended taking a train to Cobh, so that’s what we did.  We wandered around the old buildings, drank Irish coffee at a cute pub, and I took a picture of an old dock.

A dock in Cobh

What I didn’t know at the time was that 94 years earlier, Cobh was called “Queenstown.”

I don’t think this is the same dock my great-grandmother walked down nearly a century ago. It’s possible, since this is the dock used by the passengers of the Titanic, something I (incredibly) did not realize either when I took this picture. But really, how lucky could I be to find the exact dock my ancestors walked across — by accident?

Well, I did find the last town my ancestors were in before they came to America. And since the Titanic made its last stop there in 1912, the town has been preserved to reflect life as it was 100 years ago. I saw the streets, the buildings, the pubs and the docks as they were just a short time later, when Mary took her children off, hoping for a better life in America.  And they found one.

That seems just lucky enough.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day to my mother, who gave me this pale skin and intense pride.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day and 100th birthday to my grandfather Patrick, who died far too young.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day to my grandmother, who wasn’t Irish but enjoyed pretending she was, and I can respect that.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day to my brother, my aunts, my cousins, my great-aunts and distant cousins, including ones just discovered.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day to everyone who is Irish and everyone who just wants to be – so really, Happy St. Patrick’s Day to everyone in the world.

The Feast of St. Patrick: Another Essay from the Archives

This is an excerpt from an essay I wrote for an English class in 2007. On an unrelated note, it was written for one of those professors you initially can’t stand but appreciate so much after the fact. She passed away just about two years later, but sometimes I still hear her barking “clichéd! clichéd! clichéd!” That’s one way to get me to aim for originality over perfection in everything.

I was baking bread in my roommate’s casserole dish for the third time in a week when my mother called to wish me a happy St. Patrick’s Day. Thanking her, I asked about how long, in her experience, Irish soda bread needed to bake. It was the only step of the recipe I had failed to memorize and never would, no matter how many loaves I made in my lifetime.

“About 45 minutes to an hour,” she responded. When I pointed out that this range could be the difference between the perfect loaf and a kitchen fire, she told me to stab the center with a knife. I glanced at the already pockmarked top of my loaf and thanked her for the advice.

Bread-stabbing is a habit learned from my mother, just a generation away from becoming a tradition. She also taught me to immediately serve one quarter of a fresh loaf of Irish soda bread. I cut a quarter of my casserole-shaped soda bread into slices before remembering I was the only person in my apartment.

One-quarter loaf for the one-quarter Irish, I thought as I took a bite. Sugary and dotted with raisins, it tasted like nothing my Irish ancestors would ever recognize. It connected me only to my mother, and she to the grandfather I never met. His name was Patrick, and I’d often wondered if that was by choice or just the general rule for males born on March 17 in Ireland.

As I was working my way through my third slice of soda bread, my roommate came home. I shoved the plate of bread slices at her and sighed.

“What are you doing tonight?” I asked.

It was a Saturday and St. Patrick’s Day, so I was shocked when she said, “Stay home and sleep.”

She said she felt left out on St. Patrick’s Day because she’s not Irish. I pointed out that we lived in the middle of Minnesota, land of Scandinavians, and almost no one we knew was Irish.

“Yeah,” she said, “But everyone can tell I’m not Irish.”

When my roommate fills out the race/ethnicity portion of surveys, she checks Latina, Asian, and Caucasian. It bothers her to be told that the first two cancel out the last; it bothers me that I have to skip all of the interesting entries just for the last. I was surprised to find her jealous of something that, for once, fell under the scope of my white bread heritage, but I understand the need to check that third identity.

Because of an obsession with genealogy, I have divided myself into fractions. Rather than a pie-chart, I am a Rachel-chart. This leg is Irish, this one is Acadian. My toes are German, my ears a throwback to “a Micmac Indian woman” who dead-ends my family tree. It is a mix that is uniquely mine, and yet rather than make me diverse it has watered-down my sense of heritage. I am a child of the melting pot; I have no single culture to embrace as my own. Instead, I have a half-remembered recipe for a simple variation of white bread.

On what would have been my grandfather’s 95th birthday, I once again ate Irish soda bread and imagined what it would be like to meet him and ask him just one question. As I stared at the remaining three-quarter loaf of Irish soda bread, and I knew I would ask him how it felt to be celebrated whole.

This ends the flashback essay series. Tomorrow, I will be celebrating St. Patrick’s Day, my grandfather Patrick’s 100th birthday, and the wonderful thing it is to be Irish-American.

Luck of the Norwegian: An Essay from the Archives 2

This was written about St. Patrick’s Day 2009 – a memorable but odd one for sure:

I got my St. Patrick’s kicks in a little early this year, choosing to make bad decisions on a Saturday rather than a Tuesday.  Does that make it a good decision?  Call it a wash.  Anyway, my weekend was great, aside from the parts where I felt like dying.  The other parts were too much fun, and I would do those parts again (which pretty much means I’ll do the “feel like dying” parts again, too).

The actual St. Patrick’s day was going to be low-key, but ended up pretty bizarre.  First of all, there were drunk nuns before noon.  Always entertaining.  Then there was a phone call from my mom, letting me know my dad was in the hospital because of a work accident (found a chlorine gas leak with his face), but he didn’t want me to come home because I should “stay there and make money.”  I never listen to my dad; he never makes sense.  So instead, I spent about two and a half hours in the ICU, watching my pops take in oxygen and watch NCIS.  It was exactly like hanging out with my dad at home, except with a few extra tubes and wires.

Around seven, the doctor checked dad’s O2 levels and sent us all home, telling him not to smoke for a few days because it would irritate the acid in his lungs.  The acid in his lungs.  I take that to mean “don’t smoke because IT WILL MAKE YOU BLOW UP,” and dad takes it to mean “Gonna smoke anyway, because I like a challenge.”  My dad: surviving things he shouldn’t for half a century.

And that’s how I ended my St. Patrick’s day: watching my dad watch NCIS (at home this time) and thinking not about my Irish ancestors, but my Norwegian ones, and wondering if I might inherit some of their luck.  And their ridiculously hearty lungs.

Note: Dad’s lungs are not quite so hearty anymore, but I am so incredibly proud of the work he’s put into quitting smoking in the past few months. Love you Pops! Keep taking care of yourself so I can keep writing jokes about you.

The Wearin’ O The Green: An essay from the archives

If I ever needed an excuse to write about being Irish, St. Patrick’s Day is it. I wrote this in 2008 while working at the Arboretum. Consider this an early St. Patrick’s day gift to my mother.

It is St. Patrick’s Day, and even though the Arboretum is currently under a blanket of white snow, today we celebrate all things green.  This is the day the 25% of me that is Irish (mostly manifested in freckles and Conan O’Brien-ish pallor) overwhelms the other 75% of me.  Today, I make Irish soda bread, tell everyone just how many Patricks are in my ancestry, and remember the time I kissed the Blarney Stone and earned the gift of eloquence (can’t you tell?).

Whether you are lucky enough to be Irish or not, today is the day to wear green.  I have my green sweater, but I also have my brown Arboretum t-shirt: today, I’m giving a shout-out to two different types of green.  I get to be Irish every day, but I have to work at being “green.”  I’m incredibly imperfect at it, but it’s important to keep trying.  By wearing this slightly-mismatched t-shirt/cardigan combo, I’m honoring my past and what I hope to be my future.  And you thought I just got dressed in the dark.

Besides dressing the part, St. Patrick’s Day also gives me a chance to connect with my heritage through traditions.  Every year, I bake Irish soda bread.  It connects me to my ancestors, until I overwhelm the recipe with sugar and basically turn bread into candy.  I’m not much of a chef, and I have a sweet tooth – which is why I find maple syrup season to be the most exciting time I’ve spent at the Arboretum.

For a few more hours, everyone who wants to be Irish gets to be.  Tomorrow the rest of the world will put away its green, but I’ll still be a little bit Irish (and probably a little bit sick from all the sugary bread) – and that makes me feel just a little bit lucky.

PS: More tomorrow!

Luck of the Norwegian

I got my St. Patrick’s kicks in a little early this year, choosing to make bad decisions on a Saturday rather than a Tuesday.  Does that make it a good decision?  Call it a wash.  Anyway, my weekend was great, aside from the parts where I felt like dying.  The other parts were too much fun, and I would do those parts again (which pretty much means I’ll do the “feel like dying” parts again, too).

The actual St. Patrick’s day was going to be low-key, but ended up pretty bizarre.  First of all, there were drunk nuns before noon.  Always entertaining.  Then there was a phone call from my mom, letting me know my dad was in the hospital because of a work accident (found a chlorine gas leak with his face), but he didn’t want me to come home because I should “stay there and make money.”  I never listen to my dad; he never makes sense.  So instead, I spent about two and a half hours in the ICU, watching my pops take in oxygen and watch NCIS.  It was exactly like hanging out with my dad at home, except with a few extra tubes and wires.

Around seven, the doctor checked dad’s O2 levels and sent us all home, telling him not to smoke for a few days because it would irritate the acid in his lungs.  The acid in his lungs.  I take that to mean “don’t smoke because IT WILL MAKE YOU BLOW UP,” and dad takes it to mean “Gonna smoke anyway, because I like a challenge.”  And he will, and he’ll be fine, because despite what he does to himself, he’s sort of indestructible.  I’m not sure how he even has lungs anymore, but according to the doctor and some X-rays, they are just fine.  My dad: surviving things he shouldn’t for half a century.

And that’s how I ended my St. Patrick’s day: watching my dad watch NCIS (at home this time) and thinking not about my Irish ancestors, but my Norwegian ones, and wondering if I might inherit some of their luck.  And their ridiculously hearty lungs.