A funny thing happened on the way to Saint Patricks Day 2018…
Or, a funny thing happened to me on May 8, 1962…
I was born in Saint Paul, Minnesota and placed in a Catholic Charities orphanage. Within six months, I was adopted by a wonderful Irish Catholic couple who swept me away to the place I will always consider home: Rhode Island.
I was steeped in Irish lore from the start and my adopted lineage had a direct line to the Emerald Isle. I often selected the costumes of my childhood to incorporate the Shillelaghy (walking stick) of my deceased maternal grandfather. I still have, folded and stored, the Irish linens my maternal grandmother brought from the old country. I’ve no real use for them now, but can’t bear to part with their exquisite detail.
They were Barry’s and Murphy’s and I remember two great-uncles; one a policeman, the other who worked at the racetrack. They were immigrant stock, working class, and my grandmother Mary was their center. I loved the duplex she shared with Uncle Bobby and Aunt Rita until her death. I found comfort in the framed photograph of Pope Pius which hung in her living room, with a crucifix to its right. Sometimes, while she baked, she let me hunt through my deceased grandfather’s mahogany desk. In the lower right drawer was a yellowed newspaper, dated November 22, 1963, announcing the death of President Kenndy. The black and white photo of Lyndon Johnson with a solemn Jaqueline beside him as he took the oath of office was haunting. The death of President Kennedy affected everyone. The Irish took it personally.
My paternal grandparents were Toole’s and Coughlin’s and lived in what I thought of as an enormous house in Pawtucket. They were “lace-curtain” Irish; prosperous beyond the newer immigrants. My grandfather Frank was a gentle soul. After his afternoon walk, he enjoyed a cup of tea with saltines and peanut butter. Occasionally, I joined him. The fine Belleek teacup and saucer made those small moments special. My grandmother Clare was hearty and bombastic and when she hugged you, you thought you’d never breathe again. She had, just outside her bedroom, a bookcase filled with fine literature which included Yeats, Keats and the indomitable James Joyce.
I have no memory of not knowing that I was adopted. No grandparent ever treated my adopted brother or me differently, nor loved us less than they did my naturally born cousins. Indeed, my father often announced with pride, “Weren’t we lucky that we got to pick you!”
It was me, of course, who inherited the luck of the Irish.
I wore Irish like I was born to it, helped along by reddish hair and the broad freckled-face associated with Irish lasses. I’ve heard time and again from complete strangers, “Why you’ve got the map of Ireland written on your face.”
I can trip into a decent brogue easily and fancy myself something of a story-teller. Adopted children can’t really escape wondering about their backstory and I was thrilled when I realized, sometime in my teens, that Saint Paul, Minnesota is one of the few Irish enclaves in a state dominated by Scandinavians. I may not have known my birth parents, but there was one thing of which I was certain: I was Irish.
At 52, my heart was shattered. In an attempt to mend it, I went to Ireland for the first time with a dear friend. It is what we do when we are lost; seek something that might feel like home. While the journey to be wholehearted again would take years, that week in Ireland gave me the freedom to grieve. Ireland felt as familiar to me as the powdery scent of my Grandma Barry and as comfortable as the beautifully carved handle of the Shillelaghy owned by a grandfather I never knew.
Then again, a funny thing happened to me on the way to Saint Patrick’s Day 2018.
My daughter selected Galway, Ireland as the second half of her in-progress “Gap” year. I was tickled right down to my Irish toes. Before she left in January she told me that she had done “Ancestry.com.”
My throat caught and I stumbled, “Oh, well… hmm? I have mixed emotions about that.”
She waved me off, “Mom… I have a right to know my ancestry.”
I recovered, “Yeah, I guess. But, I don’t really know my ancestry. I was thinking about doing it, but now you’re gonna know first.”
She thought on that and said, “Well, I don’t have to tell you the results.”
And that was that. Within two weeks she was on a plane to Dublin and concerns about undiscovered heritage floated away.
Until, a few weeks ago, she called from Galway, “Mom, I got my results back.”
I was silent for a moment, but couldn’t contain my curiosity, “Okay, don’t tell me too much, but give me one surprise.”
I knew there would be muddle in the D.N.A but, with her father able to trace back to Ireland on both sides, I assumed there would be nothing too shocking.
“O.K, 15% Scandinavian!” Clearly, she liked that.
As for me, no surprise – between the history of plunderous Vikings and the Minnesota connection, Scandanavian was no head-scratcher. I could live with a little Scandinavian in the mix.
It was surprisingly easy to swallow and so I encouraged Grace to continue, “So, Ireland’s the largest percentage, right?”
“Nope, only 8%, mom.”
I am no mathematician and frankly, numbers make my hair hurt, but that percentage grabbed me by the throat. If my daughter only held 8% Irish heritage, and we know that her dad holds quite a lot, then my chance of actually being Irish?
I shuddered, then recovered before I egged her on to spill the beans.
After all, I did enjoy the Ancestry commercial with the guy who traded his Liederhosen for a kilt. Scottish – that had to be it! Scotch-Irish is a thing, right? Scotland and Ireland; kissing cousins!
I love the spirit of Scotsmen, all rough and tumble. I could adjust to being Scottish and there’s the great accent, and Highlands, and Sean Connery. I was ready to order a tam and look for bagpipes on eBay!
Across the bandwidth to Galway, I gave Grace permission to give the final reveal, “So, what’s the largest percentage?”
My rascally girl drew it out, “Well, it’s huge…”
“Mom, it’s 65%.”
“Wow! What is it? I’m ready.” My brain was swirling with the Loch Ness Monster, shortbread, and Mel Gibson’s bloodied torso in Braveheart!
“Well, it’s a little surprising… Great Britain!”
It was not what I wanted to hear. Not because I don’t enjoy the Royals. I do. I also had a surprising attachment to this year’s Oscar-Nominated “the Darkest Hour.” But England, really? Controlled, proper, high tea, Great Britain? One of the great bonds of my former homeland and my current homeland is that both countries broke free of the crown. Ugh.
To all my British friends, I apologize. But gosh, that was disappointing. I suppose it’s complicated enough for adopted children to spend a lifetime guessing what they are made of. When you adopt a homeland, as I did Ireland, you sort of want the fairy tale to live on.
I also imagine that when I do my own Ancestry.com, and I will, that the results will differ from my beautiful daughters. However, it’s quite unlikely that Irish percentage will be north of her paltry 8 %. I will root that my new yearning for Scottish blood just somehow missed her. I’ll be sure to report the results to my readers.
In the meantime, I’ll take a page from my dad’s book. I’ll continue to own Irish like I was born to it. If challenged, I’ll announce with pride, “Wasn’t I lucky, I got to pick Ireland for my ancestry!”