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Remembering a Reluctant Irishman

My grandfather was a reluctant Irishman. Depending on your opinions of writers like James Joyce or F. Scott Fitzgerald, that puts him in good company [1]. The Irish are known for many things: a deeply pious brand of Catholicism, an abiding love of alcohol, stubbornly curly/wavy hair, an even more stubborn (and melancholic) disposition, and adroit skills with spoken word, prose, and verse [2]. My grandfather—a fourth-generation American—had all these traits in spades, as well as a good Irish name to boot: John Benedict Fitzpatrick, though he preferred “Jack.” Yet Jack was profoundly conflicted about his Irish heritage—indeed, even a little ashamed of it—in a manner that seemed strange, especially in a post-Kennedy era when being Irish (and Catholic) was becoming synonymous with being a “full-blooded American.” Over the years, however, I’ve come to respect my grandfather’s ambivalence about his Irishness, as well as his unparalleled pride in being American.

Born in 1920s Queens, Jack grew up in a largely homogenous Irish-American neighborhood. He attended both parochial and public schools (PS 109 in Brooklyn) until his parents’ Depression-era poverty led him to drop out at age 14 and find a job to support the family. He delivered watches across New York City and once encountered the great Babe Ruth in an elevator—he had “some dame” on his arm and was smoking a fat cigar, my grandfather recounted to me. When the Second World War began, Jack promptly signed up with the Coast Guard, and spent most of the war in Norfolk, Virginia, where he fell in love not only with the Old Dominion, but with another fourth-generation Irish American, my grandmother. After the war, they married and started a family, and he began working in the dental supply business. Eventually he founded his own successful company in Springfield, Virginia. He sold it in the 1980s for enough money to retire on. God bless America.

With a “rags to riches” story like that, one similar to millions of Irish-Catholic Americans who moved from poverty or near-poverty to success and stability, why would my grandfather be so conflicted about his Irish heritage? In part, I think, precisely because this is a uniquely American story. My grandfather viewed himself as in some respects overcoming the weaknesses and struggles of Irish culture and identity. The more that he identified with being first an American, the less he felt the need to stress his Irish heritage, even if it was indelibly bound to him.

The Irish proclivity towards self-pity and defeatism was one trait my grandfather eschewed. Jack found frustrating such descriptions as the one famously offered by William Butler Yeats: “Being Irish, he had an abiding sense of tragedy, which sustained him through temporary periods of joy.” Of course, the Irish have plenty of legitimate tragedy to mourn: Oliver Cromwell’s brutal conquest of Ireland [3] reduced the island’s population by at least 15 percent; the Great Famine [4] (and British negligence in addressing it) resulted in a million deaths and another million emigrants; WASP-dominated America discriminated against the Irish and their Catholic faith for centuries. Yet some Irish, rather than seeking to overcome this sorrowful history, wallowed in martyr complexes and depression. There’s a reason so many films about the Emerald Isle [5] are unbearably melancholic. Jack understood the imperative of remembering this tortured story [6], and indeed had his own, having grown up in poverty and witnessed quintessentially Irish despair and alcoholism in his family. But he didn’t want it to define his life. His was an era where any intelligent, enterprising man could transcend humble origins and make his mark, and he aimed to achieve as much as he could—professionally, intellectually, and artistically [7]. So he did.

Jack was also ambivalent about Irish culture, especially as a niche market developed in America around all things Gaelic. He found especially silly those Irish Americans obnoxiously prideful of their ancestral country’s literature, cuisine, or music. All of these things had their merits, he would acknowledge—J.M. Synge, Jameson, and the Chieftains are all worthy of adulation. But let’s be honest—the best Irish writers represent only a small chunk of the West’s best literary tradition. Irish food and drink can be plenty hearty and tasty but are dwarfed by other cultures’ culinary contributions. And Irish music gets pretty annoying the day after St. Patrick’s Day. As one who loves Joyce, bangers and mash, and the bodhran, I’m grateful that my grandfather’s skepticism towards Irish culture was somewhat blunted when he read Thomas Cahill’s How the Irish Saved Civilization [8], which reminded him of the Gael’s significant contributions to the West. Moreover, the Irish contribution to global Christianity [9] cannot be easily overstated. For such a small land, the Emerald Isle has certainly punched above its weight. Yet when one ranks Irish civilization among others in the Western tradition (e.g. French, Italian, German, and even, yes, I daresay, English), a little cynicism towards Irish pride is appropriate.

Such skepticism is especially relevant when considering Irish Americans who have placed allegiance to their ancestral land over their adoptive American home. Some foolishly supported the Irish Republican Army [10] (IRA) after Irish independence. Others promoted [11] organizations that served as agents of the IRA. My grandfather would have none of this. He had sympathy for the suffering of Irish Catholics during “The Troubles,” but he had no interest in supporting terrorists or pushing for U.S. intervention, be it Ireland or anywhere else. Indeed, unlike many internationalist Irish-American politicians, he was an adamant isolationist who believed America should well honor John Quincy Adams’ warning to not go abroad “in search of monsters to destroy.” (He would be quite proud to know I write for a magazine founded by Pat Buchanan!) As far as Jack was concerned, once someone became an American, his first allegiance must be to America and its interests.

This is perhaps the most salient lesson I learned from my grandfather. Though he could never escape his Irish heritage—exemplified, among other things, by his wit, his temper, and his tumultuous relationship with the Catholic Church—he, as an American, placed his Gaelic blood in the background of his identity. Even the idea of being called an “Irish American,” struck him as odd. If we allow these ethnic or racial monikers to obscure a fully American identity, we keep the most important, if ambitious, goals of the American experiment at arm’s length. We risk segregating ourselves into tribes that fuel the dead ends of identity politics, exemplified in such events as the egregiously unprofessional, erroneous coverage of the Covington Catholic scandal [12].

To have pride in one’s heritage is one thing. To make it the preeminent marker of one’s identity—or worse, a political weapon to demonize one’s opponents—undermines the demands of a patriotism for all peoples. Thus this Saint Paddy’s, I will remember and honor my grandfather and his indelible Irish character. I will gladly toast him and my fellow Fenians with a Guinness. Yet I will also remember that the best memorial for Jack Benedict Fitzpatrick is to be a man defined by virtue, faith, and patriotism. Those are traits any American, Irish or not, should aspire to.

Casey Chalk is a student at the Notre Dame Graduate School of Theology at Christendom College. He covers religion and other issues for TAC.

11 Comments (Open | Close)

11 Comments To "Remembering a Reluctant Irishman"

#1 Comment By Liam On March 15, 2019 @ 8:27 am

My grandmother, born in 1890 in the damps of northwestern Leitrim (the dampest and most depopulated* county in Ireland), never seemed to shed a tear about leaving the place when she was 19.

Eighty years later, when I visited the ruins of the cottage where she grew up, I apprehended why.

* Population decrease from ~150,000 in 1841 to ~25,000 in 2001.

#2 Comment By JoS. S. Laughon On March 15, 2019 @ 10:14 am

“Guy 4x Removed From Place He’s Never Been Is Largely Ambivalent, More at 11”

#3 Comment By Xenia Grant On March 15, 2019 @ 11:43 am

I once went to a St. Patrick’s day parade years ago, and saw Chinese dragons in that parade along with the usual Celtic stuff. But, I will celebrate St. Patrick’s day by going to church, because that is the best way to honor him.

#4 Comment By John Hanft On March 15, 2019 @ 2:24 pm

God bless your grandfather and mine who had similar values and maybe you too.

#5 Comment By Michael Sheridan On March 15, 2019 @ 3:12 pm

Some of my ancestors got to this continent over three centuries ago. Others, much more recently. One of my paternal great-grandmothers was Irish and got here in 1912. Her husband, my great grandfather, was born to Irish parents who arrived here in 1887. So my paternal grandfather was 100% of Irish extraction, but a second generation American. I have no evidence or recollection that he had any investment in his Irishness, although he did give me a rudimentary family tree that was quite useful to me in my later researches. I have a few more distant Irish ancestors on my mother’s side. I’ve also taken the time to learn exactly where in Ireland my forebears lived and what they did, at least as far back as the very incomplete Irish records allow. It’s been amusing to discover that some of them had a taste for politics and political disputation they apparently bequeathed to later generations, including me.

I too have an Irish name and I too enjoy Guinness and the Chieftains. But even if I did not have a majority of non-Irish ancestry (most of my ancestors over the last few hundred years spoke some dialect of German, while a small minority came from elsewhere in the British Isles), I would not consider myself Irish American, because no one else here would bother to define me that way or be likely to treat me any differently because of that ancestry.

I feel I understand the impetus for marginalized people to band together for strength and make that bond a part of their identity. If ethnicity truly made no difference to how people are treated, I think it very likely it would be at least somewhat less important to self-identity.

#6 Comment By Patricus On March 16, 2019 @ 4:56 am

My father had a long standing yearning to visit the land of his Irish immigrant parents. He proudly procurred an Irish passport. After a few visits to the Emerald Isle he realized they were an alien people, most definitely not American. Me and my siblings are 100% Southern Americans. On St. Patrick’s day we sentimentally listen to The Girl With No Home and F##k You I’m Drunk.

#7 Comment By Hibernian On March 16, 2019 @ 12:11 pm

I agree with all of the above except for Mr. Laughon; get a life.

#8 Comment By Jeeves On March 16, 2019 @ 3:46 pm

Thank you for this, Mr. Chalk. A little Irish sentimentalism (defined as “emotion out of proportion to the cause of the emotion”) goes a long way, and it’s past time to dispense with its more noxious aspects. That would include not prosecuting anyone who participated in Bloody Sunday, as a a spiked sensibly urges.
[13]

#9 Comment By G. Lynch On March 17, 2019 @ 5:24 pm

As an Irish person, I can attest that many Americans with Irish heritage have a misty eyed romanticism about my country. Yes, Ireland suffered centuries of poverty, hunger and discrimination, and our amazing diaspora around the world is testament to this. However Ireland now is wealthy, outward looking and one of the best countries in the world to live in. We do enjoy a bit of nostalgia, we are musical and sociable and we are still very welcoming, however we also work hard and are prosperous. We find it quite bemusing and slightly patronising when Americans get maudlin about the ‘old country’ today, as neither yourselves nor ourselves can do anything about the past. We welcome our American friends and distant relations, and while we recognise that there are many ties that bind us, we also would like you to see us as we are now, rather than the romantic poverty stricken people we may be in your imagination.
Beannachtaí na Féile Padraig Ort!

#10 Comment By Mike L On March 18, 2019 @ 1:47 pm

My grandmother, born in 1890 in the damps of northwestern Leitrim (the dampest and most depopulated* county in Ireland), never seemed to shed a tear about leaving the place when she was 19.
Eighty years later, when I visited the ruins of the cottage where she grew up, I apprehended why.
* Population decrease from ~150,000 in 1841 to ~25,000 in 2001.

What a use of cultural anachronism. You compare the Ireland of 1890 to the United States of 1970. In light of the climate, not to mention the history, that ensued your grandmother’s leaving, a cottage would, of course, be in ruins. She had her reasons to leave; however, it is erroneous to imply, much less contend, that a drastic population decrease of a region over more than 150 years constitutes a reason that any descendants should ascribe no meaning to those experiences. Perhaps it merely reinforces your preconceived idea regarding Ireland? I find those cottages not only fascinating history, but a life absent technology gone berserk.

After a few visits to the Emerald Isle he realized they were an alien people, most definitely not American.

Why should they be? They are Irish! So many conservatives harp about how “immigrants” don’t assimilate and expect us to not protect our culture and identity, yet you visit there with an “American” expectation, then proceed to categorize them as “alien” when they do not comply with your definition of “American”.

G. Lynch says:
March 17, 2019 at 5:24 pm
As an Irish person, I can attest that many Americans with Irish heritage have a misty eyed romanticism about my country. Yes, Ireland suffered centuries of poverty, hunger and discrimination, and our amazing diaspora around the world is testament to this. However Ireland now is wealthy, outward looking and one of the best countries in the world to live in. We do enjoy a bit of nostalgia, we are musical and sociable and we are still very welcoming, however we also work hard and are prosperous. We find it quite bemusing and slightly patronising when Americans get maudlin about the ‘old country’ today, as neither yourselves nor ourselves can do anything about the past. We welcome our American friends and distant relations, and while we recognise that there are many ties that bind us, we also would like you to see us as we are now, rather than the romantic poverty stricken people we may be in your imagination.
Beannachtaí na Féile Padraig Ort!

Thank you for your diplomatic dismissal of the rather cynical comments that preceded yours.
Ultimately, the article reflects a problem with an increasing number written for TAC recently: a thesis that contributes to an overarching theme. The author chronicles Irish history and culture, from its centuries-long attempt to create an identity separate from England, with religion in Cromwell as the trigger, to Yeats, the Great Famine, while omitting serious periods, e.g. the impact on emigration in the draft riots in New York in the 1860’s, and the Good Friday Agreement, to which President Clinton provided diplomatic aid.

Yet, he contributes nothing to any larger issue. Consider Pat’s article “America’s History of Rejecting Dual Loyalty”, which addresses culture in the sense of citizenship and identity. Comments there stress the vital importance of maintaining a presence of ancestry in one’s home, e.g. speaking native tongue and celebrating ancestral festivals or holidays within its walls. Moreover, they recognize that to maintain and develop a culture and an economy that balances “American” history with commerce, we must identify equally as “Americans”.
In and of itself, this article could provide perhaps an insight into how and why a Millennial feels no connection to the ancestral home of Ireland. I recognize now, however, he composed a eulogy for his grandfather’s feelings and to rationalize his own ambivalence.
Conservatives certainly could incorporate immigration into a national program to codify, to the extent possible, a coherent vision of national identity. Unfortunately, articles such as this provide Exhibit A as to why the jury of voters of return a verdict of undeserving of majority status.

For what it’s worth, the book “101 Things You Didn’t Know About Irish History” by Ryan Hackney and Amy Hackney Blackwell provides a very general survey or Irish history and culture. It is very light reading, but excellent for any interested in wading into Irish history.

Full Disclosure: I am a third to fourth generation American with ancestry almost exclusively Irish (95% according to Ancestry’s saliva test). Perhaps I love Hibernia more than others and hence a slight sensitivity on my part. I can understand why many would not share my curiosity (History Major) or interest, but for the aforementioned reasons, it fails on a audience level as well as a theme and policy level for publication in TAC.

#11 Comment By Mike L On March 18, 2019 @ 3:12 pm

My grandmother, born in 1890 in the damps of northwestern Leitrim (the dampest and most depopulated* county in Ireland), never seemed to shed a tear about leaving the place when she was 19.
Eighty years later, when I visited the ruins of the cottage where she grew up, I apprehended why.
* Population decrease from ~150,000 in 1841 to ~25,000 in 2001.

What a use of cultural anachronism. You compare the Ireland of 1890 to the United States of 1970. In light of the climate, not to mention the history, that ensued your grandmother’s leaving, a cottage would, of course, be in ruins. She had her reasons to leave; however, it is erroneous to imply, much less contend, that a drastic population decrease of a region over more than 150 years constitutes a reason that any descendants should ascribe no meaning to those experiences. Perhaps it merely reinforces your preconceived idea regarding Ireland? I find those cottages not only fascinating history, but a life absent technology gone berserk.

After a few visits to the Emerald Isle he realized they were an alien people, most definitely not American.

Why should they be? They are Irish! So many conservatives harp about how “immigrants” don’t assimilate and expect us to not protect our culture and identity, yet you visit there with an “American” expectation, then proceed to categorize them as “alien” when they do not comply with your definition of “American”.

G. Lynch says:
March 17, 2019 at 5:24 pm
As an Irish person, I can attest that many Americans with Irish heritage have a misty eyed romanticism about my country. Yes, Ireland suffered centuries of poverty, hunger and discrimination, and our amazing diaspora around the world is testament to this. However Ireland now is wealthy, outward looking and one of the best countries in the world to live in. We do enjoy a bit of nostalgia, we are musical and sociable and we are still very welcoming, however we also work hard and are prosperous. We find it quite bemusing and slightly patronising when Americans get maudlin about the ‘old country’ today, as neither yourselves nor ourselves can do anything about the past. We welcome our American friends and distant relations, and while we recognise that there are many ties that bind us, we also would like you to see us as we are now, rather than the romantic poverty stricken people we may be in your imagination.
Beannachtaí na Féile Padraig Ort!
Thank you for your diplomatic dismissal of the rather cynical comments that preceded yours.
Ultimately, the article reflects a problem with an increasing number written for TAC recently: a thesis that contributes to an overarching theme. The author chronicles Irish history and culture, from its centuries-long attempt to create an identity separate from England, with religion in Cromwell as the trigger, to Yeats, the Great Famine, while omitting serious periods, e.g. the impact on emigration in the draft riots in New York in the 1860’s, and the Good Friday Agreement, to which President Clinton provided diplomatic aid.
Yet, he contributes nothing to any larger issue. Consider Pat’s article “America’s History of Rejecting Dual Loyalty”, which addresses culture in the sense of citizenship and identity. Comments there stress the vital importance of maintaining a presence of ancestry in one’s home, e.g. speaking native tongue and celebrating ancestral festivals or holidays within its walls. Moreover, they recognize that to maintain and develop a culture and an economy that balances “American” history with commerce, we must identify equally as “Americans”.
In and of itself, this article could provide perhaps an insight into how and why a Millennial feels no connection to the ancestral home of Ireland. I recognize now, however, he composed a eulogy for his grandfather’s feelings and to rationalize his own ambivalence.
Conservatives certainly could incorporate immigration into a national program to codify, to the extent possible, a coherent vision of national identity. Unfortunately, articles such as this provide Exhibit A as to why the jury of voters of return a verdict of undeserving of majority status.

For what it’s worth, the book “101 Things You Didn’t Know About Irish History” by Ryan Hackney and Amy Hackney Blackwell provides a very general survey or Irish history and culture. It is very light reading, but excellent for any interested in wading into Irish history.

Full Disclosure: I am a third to fourth generation American with ancestry almost exclusively Irish (95% according to Ancestry’s saliva test). Perhaps I love Hibernia more than others and hence a slight sensitivity on my part. I can understand why many would not share my curiosity (History Major) or interest, but for the aforementioned reasons, it fails on a audience level as well as a theme and policy level for publication in TAC.