Over Easy: Irishness in America

Dan Mackie (Courtesy photograph)

Dan Mackie (Courtesy photograph)


For the Valley News

Published: 03-14-2024 2:51 PM

St. Patrick’s Day is just around the corner, and I suppose in Ireland there might be a pub on that very corner. So there’s a little bit of sadness in knowing that my West Lebanon corner leads to a gas station with hot dogs spinning on rollers alongside cigarettes and lottery tickets that no one should ever need.

A pub would be better. But the Mackies of Ireland came to America by way of Canada and here we are.

I am Irish-American, with an emphasis on American, really. But this time of year, every year, I slip into long dreamy wonderings about Ireland and the Irish, and my connection to them both.

The older I get the more Irish I feel. The other day I took Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes out of the library to read the delightful/miserable opening. I turn to it every now and then when I feel some dissatisfaction with life, which is entirely satisfactory but we Americans have gotten into the habit of feeling down in the dumps about politics, vaccines, the cost of eggs, everything. Oh how the millionaires suffer!

McCourt had it much worse:

“People everywhere brag and whimper about the woes of their early years, but nothing can compare with the Irish version: the poverty; the shiftless loquacious alcoholic father; the pious defeated mother moaning by the fire; pompous priests; bullying schoolmasters; the English and the terrible things they did to us for eight hundred long years.

“Above all — we were wet.”

McCourt grew up achingly poor in the soggy streets of Limerick, but I grew up not-poor in somewhat sunny New England. My father told me that his mother was still sore about the English. As a boy, that seemed odd and funny to me.

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I am intrigued by accents, and I think the Irish lilting one is pretty as they come, but I didn’t detect any such sound among my family or cousins. We were Americans, and sounded like it, although on St. Patrick’s Day we tried to remember to wear something green. (Some years I shamefully forgot.)

Of what was I to be proud? Bing Crosby singing Tura, Lura, Lural? OK, fine. Leprechauns? Kinda creepy, when you think of it. Saints and poets? Ireland has an abundance of both, but I was not about to make a deep acquaintance with either. And there was the Potato Famine, a sadness as deep and wide as an ocean — too much for an American boy to take in.

I am not a big talker but I am a good listener, and one thing that may have come to me from Ireland is an appreciation for words: colorful, interesting or oddball. According to the internet, the Irish gave us banshee, hooligan, shillelagh, smithereens and, yes, whiskey. I like the spoken word better than music, which puts me at odds with mass culture, that is, almost everyone.

Along with McCourt I’ve come across the writings of Edna O’Brien, Claire Keegan, Sebastian Barry. They’re all, as the Irish say, grand.

My son, to my surprise, has discovered Irish sports in Connecticut, where he plays hurley and the Irish brand of football (a blend of soccer and rugby and roughhousing). My daughter jokes that she’d like to be the Grand Colleen of the Holyoke St. Patrick’s Day Parade. She’d wear the gleaming white Irish knit sweater with pride.

I know next to nothing about all this but I’ve toured around Ireland twice and the land is beautiful and the people friendly, even to Americans because they probably have a cousin who lives near you. Just the other day I wondered how many Irish-Americans are in these somewhat united states and I found a 2021 census report that said 31.5 million claim some Irish ancestry. Ireland’s population is just over 5 million.

To my surprise, the census found that the state of New Hampshire has the most Irish ancestry as a percentage of the population, 20.2%. Vermont is fourth at 17.0. Faith and begorrah, whatever that is. Let’s have a parade!

One of the agreeable things about being linked to Ireland is no one suggests the Irish are superior or meant to rule the world. As for me, I married a woman who the DNA says is English and Scottish with a dash of Danish. I am nearly 100% Irish, but we have lived in a happy alliance for almost 50 years.

Near St. Patrick’s Day I think of my son and daughter as ever-more Irish, but Dede rightly reminds me there is more to the story: Irish, English, Danish, Scottish and genetic sprinkles from elsewhere.

It is the American story, I suppose.

Dan Mackie lives in West Lebanon. He can be reached at dan.mackie@yahoo.com.