St. Patrick’s Day: A day to ponder where we came from and why

I’ve got bigger ideas in mind this St. Patrick’s Day than green beer and Irish dancers. It’s got me thinking about how we all got here into this grand but troubled country, and how the rifts between us continue.

I guess I’m Irish, but not in a South-Side-Irish way of clans that live in the neighborhood and walk into each others’ houses without knocking, with many attitudes in common and automatic fellow-feeling. I’ve only been to one Irish wake, and it was as an unintended observer. And I never remember to wear green on St. Patrick’s Day.

But I’m not oblivious. I know about the economic ups and downs in recent Irish history, and the terrible religiously-informed clashes of the last century, and the apparent reconciliation, that we should learn more about in case we could apply it to the widening faults along religious, cultural, and economic lines here.

I once visited the little park in lower Manhattan that remembers the potato famine that sent thousands of immigrants to the U.S. I’ve also seen the Tenement Museum there that has taken over a couple of old tenement buildings and depicts the life of immigrants from various countries, including Ireland.

This is where I connect with St. Patrick’s Day, as a day of immigrant stories, which include our own. How my two families got here was radically different, the Appalachian side arriving in the late 1700s to Virginia, and the Chicago/Cincinnati side in the late 1800s from Germany and Holland.

I recently had my DNA done and it is disappointingly white-bread: 87% Great Britain, a dash of Scandinavia, a smaller dash of Ireland, and the tiniest slice of Finland and Northwest Russia. At least I know that my folks wandered around before they came here, to Spain and France and a few other places.

I had hoped for some Native American from my Appalachian side, maybe some European Jewish or Italy/Greece from the other, but they were all zeroes. I guess my people stayed to themselves.

None of that answers the questions I have. What motivated each of my ancestors to climb into a ship for a harrowing crossing and an uncertain life? Were they fleeing something, or seeking something? Were they afraid, or excited, or unspeakably sad, or all of the above?

Even though they can’t answer me now, a tip of the hat to them. Where would I be without them?


If you want to give yourself the perfect St.Patrick’s Day present, go see the movie “Brooklyn” for one Irish immigrant tale that will stick with you for a while.


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