THE BLOG

Celebrating My Irish Heritage On St. Patrick's Day

03/15/2014 08:22 am ET | Updated May 15, 2014

I consider myself Irish American.

It upsets some people to hear terms like Irish or Italian American. They wish that we were all simply called Americans, without qualifiers. It's hard to argue with that spirit.

Yet it's hard to deny that most of us have ancestors that emigrated from other countries. In my opinion, being proud of your heritage shouldn't make you any less American.

Have you caught a glimpse of a calendar lately?

My mother's parents were both from County Kerry, Ireland. They arrived in Chicago independently, met, fell in love and started a family. My father's side is predominantly Irish, despite the surname and lack of available documentation.

Mom's parents, simply called Ma and Pa, were in nursing homes by the time I knew them. I don't remember Ma, and have precious few recollections of Pa.

One visit stands out. Pa was in a room for two. His bed was closest to the door, and the other was vacant. A woman came in to make up the empty bed, and as she walked past we couldn't help but notice her rather daunting derriere. A gargantuan gluteus maximus, as it were.

As she bent over to strip the sheets, Pa's eyes grew wide. Older, savvier members of the family tensed.

"Good Lord, would you look at that!" he exclaimed.

"Hush, Pa!" replied all the adults. Pa interpreted this as a challenge to an undeniable fact.

"I'm not kidding, just look at the size of it," he continued.

The woman completed her task and left without saying a word.

At that stage of his long life, Pa was unconcerned with social etiquette. We were horrified at the time; I'm happy for the memory now.

Pa's family had a small farm near Ballyheigue, Kerry. The oldest brother had no interest in it, and left for the States, settling in Chicago. The second oldest also left to become a blacksmith. Pa was next in line, and from all accounts, had a knack for farming. He was happy until the second son changed his mind, came home and reclaimed the farm.

Pa left for Chicago the next day, never to return.

When I was about 10, my mom went to Ireland with my aunt and uncle. She visited the farm and saw the house where her mother was born. She seemed happy when she returned; at peace.

I made my first trip to Ireland with my brother Jim. We spent some time in Dublin, then drove across the country to County Kerry, making stops along the way. We had prearranged visits with two sets of cousins.

The first lived on the short main street in Ballyheigue, and ran a general store out of the front room. We drove passed it at first. Jim spotted a pub and went inside to confirm we were in the right place. Evidently the locals knew we were coming. It's not a big town.

We had lunch and a nice visit, learning about their branch of the family and how we were all related. After a couple of hours we said goodbye and headed for the farm.

My heart pounded as we knocked on the front door. Our cousin Nora opened the front door and welcomed us. As I entered, she whispered "I remember your mother." I melted.

The highlight for me was standing behind the house, looking at the Atlantic Ocean. I was told that off to the right was where the River Shannon met the sea. It was beautiful and moving, and I felt a connection.

We were the last ones to visit; our cousins have passed and the farm has been sold. Jim and I are grateful we made the trip.

I'm also glad we stopped at the Blarney Castle. I felt it did me good, despite the stories of what's done to the stone at night. I leave you with an actual email I sent to coworkers:

Ladies,

As we all share Irish heritage, I hope you can envision the twinkle in my eye as I write this.
Yesterday, I had brief conversations with each of you.

When I told Maureen that I've lost 14 pounds in my family weight loss competition, she replied: "Really, you can't even tell."

When I passed Joan, she said she missed talking to me, as it had been quite awhile. That was kind, but she continued to say: "You're growing old before my eyes."

To both of you, I highly recommend a trip to the Blarney Castle.

It is said that kissing the stone gives you the gift of gab, a way of speaking with eloquence and charm, lasting 7 years.

Either you ladies have not yet been, or a return trip is long overdue.

Tom

Happy St. Patrick's Day, and Sláinte!

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