You would think I would have known better. I am, after all, writing a book about citizenship, religion, and national identity, so I should have known that actually becoming an Irish "citizen of foreign birth" would evoke conflicting and complicated emotions. While I am glad to have this new connection to my past, I also deplore the way that many Americans--Irish and otherwise--romanticize Ireland and its culture. When I see the elaborate celebrations that mark St. Patrick's Day, I cannot help but call to mind Margaret Atwood's critique of "ye olde country shoppes.": "History, as I recall, was never this winsome, and especially not this clean, but the real thing would never sell: most people prefer a past in which nothing smells. "
Ireland's past has plenty of smells, and many of them are unpleasant. The experience of migration intensified some of the worst of it, and the history of Irish Catholicism in the United States has a dark side that all the spritely leprechauns and shamrocks in the world may mask but never erase. For specifics, read CLOSING TIME, Joe Queenan's haunting and beautiful memoir about growing up in a working-class Irish-American community in Philadelphia. Though my own family's experience has nothing of the horrors chronicled by Queenan, I have read and experienced enough of Irish-American culture to appreciate the pervasiveness of the violence, alcoholism, repression and tragedy which he describes.
I know my grandfather, were he still alive, would be puzzled, if not angry, at our choice to become Irish citizens. My grandmother, also an immigrant, retained a strong attachment to Ireland and visited as often as she could. But my grandfather returned only rarely and reluctantly. Though poverty and hardship were part and parcel of his early life in the United States, he never regretted the choice to leave Ireland. Here he found work, met my grandmother, owned a house, and had five children, and he was perpetually grateful for all that his adopted land had given him. He lived until age ninety-five--something he insisted would never have been possible had he stayed.
Yesterday one of my colleagues, who can trace his lineage back to the Mayflower, expressed his envy of my status as one of Ireland's newest "citizens of foreign birth." But surely he wouldn't exchange his family's three-century head start on education and the accumulation of wealth for the proprietary glow I will feel later today when I lift my pint of Guinness in celebration of Ireland's patron? I was reflecting on this last night as I was baking my grandmother's scone, wondering whether my decision to become an Irish citizen was less of an act of remembering than it was of forgetting.