“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.
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.