As March 17th quickly approaches, I have been thinking more about Irish heritage. I read somewhere that the Irish identity is “hard as diamond and as fluid as water – it goes everywhere, endures everything and becomes everyone.” I think back to my family and all that they endured over the years to become who we are today. Sometimes I smile. Other times I weep.
The Hidden Struggles of Ancestors
There are things as an adult that I have learned about my ancestors; about my family. Their stories have become embedded into my memory as though each one belongs to me. My struggles today have no similarities to what my family went through back then. They have never included surviving disease and famine. I have never feared that my family would be treated “less than” humane. I often find myself wondering…would I make the same decisions they did back then or would I crumble under the pressure? Or would I feel empowered enough to stand up and have my voice be heard? Could I ever love a place so much that my heart would ache at the very thought of it, but be willing to leave that place for even the slightest chance at life.
From the very beginning, the Irish have had struggle. It began with the Viking invasions that spanned from 800 to 900 A.D. It was followed by the Strongbow invasion in 1169 A.D that lasted 700 years. And then, there was English rule, in which so many lost their rights; both political and religious. The land of their ancestors, and their family…. all that belonged to them…. was no longer theirs. They could stay of course, and pay astronomical tax rates that they just couldn’t pay. And those were forced with certain eviction from the landlords.
When it seemed like nothing could possibly get any worse, the famine hit. They had nothing left. Initially, they had no freedom…. no money, no land, and now…. they were dying; by the thousands. The choice to leave had nothing to do with the land they loved; where ancestors whispered to their hearts and souls through the mists of the Emerald Isle. Their choice was to die in Ireland or to leave their home(s) in search of a new life in America.
These people, my family…. had known life would be hard but they had hope. Hope that they would have rights and be protected in America. This was not the case. There was no group lower than the Irish in the 1850’s. Despite it all, they held strong. They were strong in their faith, and their culture and they believed that education is what would allow their children a fighting chance.
My grandfather grew up in New York. His father drove a truck and his Mother rented out rooms to fellow immigrants in their home; often times without receiving payment. They helped each other survive. They shared what they had and they pulled together. He told us about the tenants that would come through and the various chores he was assigned to do. He spoke of the food they would share and the laughter. And he would chuckle; his eyes gleaming with happiness. He never mentioned the sorrow, and fear, didn’t speak of the loss of life, or the days they went without. Instead, he talked about going out and protecting cars outside the theatres for a nickel. He was proud to help his family any way he could.
I couldn’t imagine my grandfather being a little boy…having to wonder where the next meal would come. Then, it all made sense. When we’d visit my grandparent’s house, my grandmother would make these little sandwiches…. white bread, a thin slice of meat and the smallest trace of mustard. They never forgot what it was like to struggle and they lived in a way that would ensure they would always survive… just in case. But even in struggle, they had hearts of gold…..
What I wish I had known
I think of sacrifice… My dad was the oldest of eight children. They lived in a two bedroom house. My grandparents moved themselves into the living room and slept on a pull out couch so that the girls and boys each had a room.
And pride… When I was a little girl, my grandfather was larger than life. He was tall like my dad, and would hide coins behind my ears and he was always tinkering on something. Every year, he would take me and my sister with him to the Knights of Columbus Christmas celebration and show us off; his granddaughters. The last time I was home, my Aunt said she had something for me. When I was born, my grandmother made a photo album; I was the first grandchild and it showed. This album had everything from letters about my progress, to photos to clips of hair. She saved it all.
And love… My grandparents were love; quiet love. Every single night, they would take each other by the hand and walk. They would quietly enjoy each other. And when my grandfather passed away, my grandmother wrote him a love note each night before she fell off to sleep. It wasn’t always easy, but it was always love.
And selfless…..They delivered food through Meals on Wheels for as long as I could remember, until cancer ravaged my grandfather’s body and then my grandmothers. It meant as much to them as it did to the people who received their offering. They did what they could with what they had and that’s what mattered most.
Still today, I can close my eyes and see the twinkle in my grandfather’s eyes. I wonder if it’s true that “when Irish eyes are smiling….” because his eyes, they smiled. They were magical. And I can still feel my grandmother’s soft hand, in mine…as she walked me through the garden, pointing out the flowers and holding the delicate petals within her fingers with all the beauty of an Irish day.
I wish I had understood the struggles they had been through. What they had given up and all they had been through in order to be the people standing in front of me all those days ago. That I hadn’t been so selfish, and I had hugged them more. I miss them both.
I guess it has nothing to do with being Irish. It’s about family. It’s about love.
Happy Saint Patrick’s Day.