The big party known as St Patrick’s Day is upon us. Saint Paul, like many cities, more or less shuts down for a day as the town is painted green and flows with rivers of Guinness that wash celebrants down the streets from one bar to another. The theme of the party is Irish Pride, something that seems like a cheap excuse for a lot of drinking to most people. The Irish aren’t a people who stand out most of the year, blending in as part of the great majority of our culture here in the US, Canada, Australia, and all the other places we’ve settled.
But it wasn’t always this way. The reason we still have a party isn’t just a big drunk as we wait for Spring. Irish Pride was earned the hard way, like fraternity hazing. It’s a standard that nearly all ethnic groups have had to go through as generations move from being immigrants to mainstream citizens.
My great grandmother, Margaret Shaw, was born in Liverpool in 1870. She came to the US as a young child with her father James Shaw, a shipbuilder who learned the trade as the age of great steel vessels was just beginning in England. They settled in Chester, Pennsylvania, where Sun Shipbuilding had an enormous yard.
Having been born in England was critical to Margaret because it allowed her to stake a claim – she would tell anyone that she was English. Nevermind the name Shaw, nevermind the large Irish population of Liverpool that would later give us the Beatles. Margaret had what she needed to be a social climber – she could pass for something that she wasn’t as long as she put on the right “airs”.
The stories are hazy as my family has recounted them through the fog of our own celebrations. There has been a lot of time and Margaret was never known for telling the exact truth – her desire and imagination painted the picture she wanted as our family legends were wrapped to fit her needs. In later years, she became known as “Nanny”, the matriarch who kept the table set properly in fine china and sat up straight as if holding her own court.
My favorite story is about her father. She told us that James Shaw was a trusted partner at the shipyard because he went to the bank every day. The implication was that he was the one who took important checks and managed cash payments for Sun. When pressed, Nanny would tell everyone that the only reason James wasn’t accepted as a full partner is that he was Irish – and Catholic.
The story had a tinny ring of truth until one day when we found a pin that once belonged to James – a small circular badge in green with a gold harp in the middle. James was a Fenian, a man who supported freedom for Ireland back in the 1890s when it was still a dream. His constant trips to the bank were probably the delivery of dues and contributions to the IRA to be sent “back home” to Ireland. He knew who he was.
Nanny was never comfortable as a Catholic. She married Franklin Hare, a Presbyterian, in 1896 – ditching the name Shaw and the stigma of Catholicism in one ceremony. When Frank died just before the birth of his son, my grandfather, we can only imagine the crisis in the family – but Margaret’s guts must have been even more turmoil. Her son was baptized Catholic, as George Francis Hare rather than George Franklin, when Margaret went back to the faith that anchored her. My family remains split between Protestant and Catholic to this day.
Later in life, Margaret remarried, to a Lutheran, and resumed her Protestant life. Her grave, however, is in the Catholic cemetery in Chester because at the very end she returned yet again to the faith which, no matter how hard she tried, still defined her.
Nanny was, after all, Irish. She could not escape it.
That doesn’t mean she didn’t insist at every opportunity that she was English, however. But my grandfather figured it out. When our family’s ethnicity came up, as it often did, he once quietly went to the kitchen drawer and pulled out a knife. Pressing it to his wrist he declared, “If I thought I had one drop of English blood in me I’d cut my veins open and spill it all out here.” That settled that we are Celts right there – if not for the words but for the drama.
When I visit my Catholic cousins we make jokes about the split in our family. They make sure there’s a bottle of Bushmill’s on hand, the Protestant Irish Whiskey, as a switch from the Catholic Jameson. We have a lot of fun with it, largely at Nanny’s expense.
St Patrick’s Day is more to me than a cheap excuse for a party. It is a day to celebrate what my family was once deeply ashamed of – that we are indeed Irish. More than a century on it may seem unnecessary but we Celts have long memories and family histories that have twisted around the need to “pass” as something we never were.
The same story plays out for many people today who come to our land and do their best to blend in for a better life. St Patrick’s Day is a day to celebrate how we got through the hazing and became full members of the strange fraternity that is the dominant culture of our nation. If we made it, everyone can. It takes turmoil, time, and tenacity.