Growing Up Irish in America

St. Patrick’s Day in our home was a quiet, subdued affair—no appurtenances of green, no consumption of green beer. We wore no stovepipe hats, nor any buttons of boasting Irishry. However, it was a special day, my saint’s day, the day when St. Patrick passed from the discord of time to the mystery of eternity.

My mother woke us with: “Beannachtai Padraig”—the blessings of Patrick, imparting a certain peace, for St. Patrick brought genuine hope—the faith of the Roman Catholic Church to the Irish people. Though peace ended quickly as my mother issued rapid verbal commands in the native tongue: “Comb that glib!” “Stop that seafoid (nonsense)!” “Go to scoil anois (school now)!”

My parent’s hailed from the far west of Ireland known as the Gaeltacht—Irish land, where the language once heard throughout Ireland is still spoken. They came here legally.

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American celebrations on St. Patrick’s Day were alien to my family. Earlier Irish immigrants in America were politically vocal, making their presence in this country known as a way of pressuring the British government to allow democratic reforms and self-government in Ireland. The tradition of “wearing the green” was once a bold statement of Irish nationalism, today gone awry into a pantomime of Irishness sadly exhibited on Patrick’s Day.

My understanding of being Irish is one of exile and displacement. We retain our own language, songs, stories, and traditions among ourselves. Unreconstructed by modernity and scientific distortions of reality we retain a belief in the mystery of things, and intuit a harmony surrounding human existence.

Most people are surprised to learn that Gaelic/Irish is a distinctive language and culture from that of England. They think that being Irish is speaking English with a funny accent or brogue (an Irish word for shoe). The Irish are a Celtic people. Julius Caesar defeated the Celts in the Gallic Wars. Descendants of the Celts still inhabit Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Brittany, Cornwall and the Isle of Man and Galicia in Spain.

England’s conquest of Ireland outlawed the Irish language and culture while denigrated the Irish as “wild,” “savage” and “barbarian,” Europe’s white savages! The Nobel Prize poet Derek Walcott says the Irish were “niggers of Europe.”

Once as a graduate student at Trinity College library in Dublin, I came across a Middle Age woodcut of an English depiction of the “wild Irish.” The Irish chieftains portrayed sported truly wild looking traditional hairdos—the envy of any new wave, punk—called a glib. It was, for me, a strange recognition. I laughed and knew why mother made me comb my hair for school.

After the battle of Culloden in 1746 the English proscribed similar edicts against the Scottish Highlanders with whom we share the same language. President Trump’s mother was a native Gaelic speaker from the Isle of Lewis. She named the home President Trump grew up in in New York, “Tara” after the ancient seat of Irish kings and Donald (Domhnall) pronounced “Doonal” is a Irish word meaning “world leader.”

In subjugating America, the English would represent Native Americans as savages, but this time “red savages.” So the Irish share with the Indian a kind of kinship. Indeed, Mohawk Indians fighting alongside Scottish troops during the French and Indian War were curious about the Highlanders evicted from their lands into British service. John Campbell, Earl of Loudon commander of the Gaelic speaking Scottish forces recorded in his diaries how Native Americans considered his troops to be “a kind of Indian.”

Like the Celts, the Indians belonged to tribes or clans. The Scots and Indians spoke a language alien to English, and dressed differently. Scots who wore skirts fascinated the Indians because they both dressed alike. By day clansmen draped a blanket (in Irish plud) over the shoulder and belted it around their waste. The English corrupted this word into “plaid” denoting the pattern on the cloth. At night this blanket would be disassembled and slept in like a sleeping bag. Like the Indian the Scots tried to terrify the enemy in battle with much clamour and had their own war whoop the English rendered into the word slogan. A short list of familiar Irish words in the English lexicon includes: galore, bard, brat, glen, bog, loch, whiskey, shanty, racket, colleen.

There is a tragic dimension in being Irish. It is easy to mourn the past and make a lyricism of defeat. This is the worst kind of defeatism. I have never been a professional Irishman. Times change, things change. The old order changeth and even the sun has set on Britain’s Union Jack. England’s contribution to Western civilization is well known, Ireland’s less understood. In a secular Europe the Irish work of once spreading leaning and the Christian faith has been airbrushed.

Under the rubric of multiculturalism all cultures are being reduced to an absurdity. Our age of immanence and political correctness enforced by the media compels everyone to be as alike as everyone else. This reduction of peoples and their cultural history also seeks to eradicate the eternal dimension of man. Living in such an age it is crucial to remember that man is a created being who has the capacity to transcend time. We all hold passports to eternity. I celebrate this transcendence by joining the celebration of Mass on St. Patrick’s Day.

And I am not averse to other forms of festivity. After Mass, I may go on a bit of a spree—the Irish word for fun!

Editor’s note: Pictured above is Clifden Castle, Ireland.


  • Patrick J. Walsh

    Patrick J. Walsh is a writer in Quincy, MA. He holds a graduate degree in Anglo-Irish literature from Trinity College, Dublin and has written for The Weekly Standard, Modern Age and several other publications.

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