Written by Mary Carter
This essay was originally written for the 2015 NYC St. Patrick’s Day Parade.
The time was the early nineties. The place, an Irish pub in midtown Manhattan. “I’m Irish,” I said to the bartender who actually was. I’d just moved to New York City from a small town in Ohio. Fresh off the bus, and facing a very cute Irish bartender with an accent worth swooning over.
I believe he rolled his eyes. “Where are you from?” he said, knowing the answer wasn’t a county in Ireland.
“You’re not Irish.” He walked away leaving me staring after him. Was it me, or was that rude? But he was cute, and had that darn accent so I let it slide.
This was the start of many spirited debates between us, most of which I lost by a landslide.
Twenty years later (and much coming and going in between) I am in a different pub but talking to the same bartender, who is now a long-time friend. He’s lost his accent a bit, and now refers to it jokingly as his “fake Irish accent”. He was telling me about an American friend of his. “He’s Irish,” he said.
“Where’s he from?” I asked.
The answer, was from somewhere within the United States.
“He’s not Irish,” I say. We look at each other and a small understanding passes of how the years have changed each of our perspectives. He smiles, shakes his head, and walks away.
In those twenty plus years, I’ve since been to Ireland and researched Ireland and met so many Irish people in their homes, and their pubs, and the fields, and their work, and whenever an American tells me they’re Irish, I have the same gagging reaction he did twenty years ago.
No, you’re not. Not really.
Neither am I even though my name is Mary Patricia.
We just sort of are, we just really want to be.
On my first trip to Ireland there was an American in one of the pubs, and his voice rose above the rest of the gentle lilts. “Oh, the lungs on ‘im,” my boyfriend’s mother said with her hand to her heart. “Why are all Americans so loud?” Then as if suddenly remembering the company she was keeping, she glanced at me in horror. “Oh, you’re not like them,” she said with a half-hearted pat to my shoulder.
I was embarrassed and amused. The white socks with sandals, the big bellowing voices, the T-shirts that scream TEXAS, or BOSTON, or CLEVELAND, the very American ways about them, and yet they’re all proclaiming to be Irish. Is it just wish fulfillment? The “grass is much greener” phenomena? I’m sure that’s part of it, but like most of life, it’s not that simple.
There’s an Irish spirit, and love of country, and sensibility, and sarcasm, and sense of humor, and intelligence, and extremely fierce pride, and talents that the Irish brought with them when they emigrated, wherever they emigrated. And that is part of the reason why everyone wants to be Irish. The Irish passed on their love of the old country to their children (who CAN call themselves Irish Americans) and their children’s children. I was not born in Ireland, my maternal great grandmother was. Yet my red-headed mother was instilled with a fierce love of a country she had never set foot in. She passed down Irish blessings and curses. She can tell a story like nobody’s business, and at times nobody’s tongue is sharper. She drinks so much tea I think the industry would go under if she stopped, prefers Guinness over any American beer, and talks about The Troubles as if they were yesterday. When she saw a movie set in Ireland (I won’t mention because she didn’t actually like it) she cried when the camera swept over the fields of green, and the soaring cliffs, and the blue sea.
And so I say that it’s not entirely the fault of Americans with Irish ancestry that we feel like we want to be members of the club. Spirit lives on. Love lives on. And for whatever reason — it was Shannon Airport for heaven’s sake, not exactly a breathtaking view upon landing — but when I looked out that airplane window and knew I was finally in Ireland, the real Ireland, I too, began to cry.
My Irish boyfriend at the time looked at me, saw my tears, shook his head, and said. “If you start singing rebel songs you’re on the next plane back.”
From Dingle, and the Ring of Kerry, to Killarney, Limerick, Dublin, Kinsale, Galway, and the Aran Islands, I can say without hesitation that my month in Ireland was the best of my entire life. I saw Tiger Woods play at Adare, threw knives at a unicyclist in Galway, played poker until five AM in Kilmallock, County Limerick (Came in second, mind ye) and stood at the fence of a horse race in Kerry, so close I could feel the wind in my face as the horses roared by. I’ve never met funnier, or more entertaining people. I made friends for life. I heard sayings I never knew existed, nor even as a writer could have ever thought up. It was mighty craic. Where conversations still reign in the local pubs, and the potatoes are laughing up at you in the pot, and musicians hold you spellbound in the tiniest of pubs in the middle of nowhere, and you never realized someone could actually make incredible music with a set of spoons, and you wonder how many blankets its going to take to feel your toes at night — I loved every bit of it. Where — ‘What do you do?’ isn’t a question that’s even asked when you meet someone for the first time. It’s ‘Where are you from?’ and ‘What’s your story?’ I love the songs, and the scenery, and the sayings, and the craic, and the history, and the culture. But most of all I love the Irish people. They’re proud. And we can all see why.
No wonder Americans go nuts celebrating Saint Patrick’s Day. We march in parades, we wear our green, we beg for kisses, we dye rivers green, we pile into pubs, and raise our pints. And finally, on this day, we get to say it. Most likely at the top of our mighty lungs. No matter where we’re from — we’re Irish. At least a little. At least today.
Essay and photographs by Mary Carter ©2015.