I am Irish in the way that I know the story of the first of us to come here, a woman in her 50s in the 1850s, fed up with the injustice of it all, the hunger and the dying and finally, last straw, the death of her only son in the Crimean war, his blood spilled for England, in England’s war.
I know how she got here and I know where she lived.
I know what she took for a drink, nights, along with her pipe, and what she said to the children when they came spilling in the door of that farmhouse so poor the tree that grew outside it couldn’t afford branches.
I am Irish in that way.
I am not Irish in the way of saying all the time what a great fine thing it is to be Irish.
Of the four bloodlines that went toward making me, I know about only two. I never learned a single thing about the family on my father’s mother side or the family on my father’s side because then I would have had to know about my father and I don’t.
I am Irish on all sides, as I have been told again and again, listening to all the jolly talk about how there were two kinds of people in the world the Irish and the ones who wish they were. Also I have heard the less jolly talk about the One True Church and the pagan babies and the non-elect, marooned outside forever, like smokers, the non-Catholics into whose houses of worship we never could go under pain of… what? Excommunication was it?
No wonder then that as a girl of 19 I fell for a boy of 21 (still wearing the suit from his ninth grade graduation because it was the only one he owned) and he wasn’t Catholic and he wasn’t Irish and didn’t I just sleep with him after all those years of saving myself and go right home and march into my mother’s bedroom to tell her I would marry him, and I did. (Poor lady! I can still see her trembling hands that night as she lit one cigarette and put it to her mouth, then immediately lit a second one and tried to get it in her mouth too.)
I guess I was just sick of all that Only-Us-ness by then and so set sail in a life that kept on opening before me as I, who had never tasted lasagna, or wontons or hummus, or naan, tasted all of those and found out about what I’d been missing.
Still, all day yesterday I thought about our ways as Irish people: All the remembering, and weeping we did. All the songs.
That long-ago woman, born in 1800 and dead of the dropsy in 1891: I know about her because I knew her youngest grandson, who was my grandfather. My sister Nan and I lived in his house, together with our abandoned mom, and two ancient great aunties born in the 1860s. He would pass me playing on the floor and lay his hand on my dark curls and call me Blackberry Top. “Little Blackberry Top” he would say.
So yesterday I went to the attic and read all of his papers. He really did get the Boston teachers their first-ever pay raise, exploited women that they were. I have the public talk from 1919 in which he vows to do that. He really did run for Mayor of Boston against the ‘rascal king’ James Michael Curley, in such a quixotic bid that a full 40 years later we were still making grocery lists on the unused letterhead from that campaign.
He was an idealist and maybe I am too, on account of him.
I know he fell hard for a blue-eyed girl in the early 1890s. She married him when he got done law school and bore four babies in five years, and, scarce out of her 20s, saw her fifth baby die inside her only hours before she died herself.
His world went black then, as he wrote in his diary of that day.
In time he fell in love again with the younger sister of that blue-eyed girl and tried all over again like Job and here sure enough came a new fifth child… But then that wife died too, at only 40, and he found a snatch of verse in the newspapers and cut it out and hung it by the mantle where I saw it every day walking past that hearth. Here is what it says:
Good night! good night! as we so oft have said
Beneath this roof at midnight in the days
That are no more, and shall no more return.
Thou hast but taken thy lamp and gone to bed;
I stay a little longer, as one stays
To cover up the embers that still burn.
When he died and we sold the house he had built with such joy, we took the yellowed piece of newsprint and tucked it away, where, these 50 years later, I have again come upon it.
I am Irish in the way that my heart contracts to read it again as I have done just this morning But no more than the heart of anyone would contract at the thought of the lost, in whatever breast that heart beats, and from whatever land.