Becoming Irish

What is it about the Irish? The other day I caught a very brief part of a program on NPR discussing Irish immigrants in America, and the persecution of the Irish population that occurred, giving rise to “Irish need not apply” signs. I’ve mostly only seen those signs in bars, and interpreted them to mean because the Irish were always so stinkin’ drunk, they shouldn’t even bother applying. Ha! How wrong  I was (though that stereotype definitely played into the persecution.)

Today is St. Patrick’s Day. The day that half of the American population loses their mind in an alcoholic binge while dressed in every piece of green clothing they own, topped off with deely boppers, flashing glasses, and a green feather boa.  Everyone wants to be Irish or claim to have a single cell of Irish blood in their bodies.  Why is this?

Is it the need for Americans to identify with some sort of ethnicity or heritage beyond our own embarrassing, shameful culture we have created since we first landed on this continent and chose to forget who we were and where we came from?  Or is it because we love bangers and mash and think the Irish brogue is kind of cool?  I don’t get it.  I really don’t.  Yet we all seem to fall victim to this green spell.

I worked part-time in an Irish guest house for nine years, owned by an American with a last name that began with O’.  There were a few genuine natives from Ireland  who worked at the inn, and they were a damn good time, the whole lot of ’em. The customers were just as rabid about laying claim to some piece of Irish lineage as any drunk on St. Patrick’s Day.  They signed up in droves for the Irish tours that happened year-round to our sister inn in Athlone, and came home even more rabidly “Irish” after six days on the Emerald Isle drinking pints of Guinness, buying Claddagh rings, peering over the cliffs of Mohr and flirting with the locals.  I even managed to find myself one of these tours, and spent the better part of it exercising my own Irish heritage by remaining extremely drunk, cracking sheep jokes, and rolling in the green green grass with one of the locals.

What is it about the Irish?  Ireland feels very primitive. It is extremely, extremely green.  The landscape is idyllic; the homes painted in an array of bright colors that stand out against the  bleak stone walls, green fields and icy gray rivers.  The locals are extremely friendly and witty; everyone seems to be musically talented or possess a singing voice, and those pub stools are so flippin’ cute  (and so much closer to the floor, should you take a spill and find yourself on it).  It’s as if the Irish know something we don’t know; they possess a pleasantness about them and a sense of calm and whimsy that simply can not be achieved by uptight stressed out Americans. Or maybe I’m over-analyzing it and mistaking my observations for a national permanent buzz.

As it turns out, I can lay claim to being Irish.  My great-great grandmother supposedly emigrated from Ireland to the United States.  Her name was Kate Cullen (more likely Cullough or some variation thereof).  I know almost nothing about her except that she had a son named Richard Spear, who married a German woman named Isabelle Kiesow, who gave birth to a daughter named Ellen Spear, who married my Welsh grandfather Howard Jones, who then gave birth to my father Tom Jones, who sired me. My grandmother would tell me stories about her grandmother Kate, and her Aunts, the Irish nuns, but there were no real paper trails, no cookie crumbs, no ability to trace this woman back to Ireland.  I don’t even know who her husband was.  I only know that she hailed from County Cork, and she gave birth to a long-line of alcoholics. I hate to be cliche, but that’s one part of my lineage that remains strong to this day.


The “Sister Sisters” at the family farm

My grandmother passed away a few months ago, and I miss her dearly.  She was really the only grandmother I ever knew, and the keeper of the stories. She wasn’t much of a drinker, being addicted to valium and all as she was, but she certainly had an Irish wit and vim and vinegar about her. At her funeral, I finally met Great Great Grandma Cullen for the first time.  She looks like someone I could get into a bit of trouble with.  Slainte!

My great great grandmother Kate Cullen.

My great great grandmother Kate Cullen.

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