How a Notre Dame Professor Became Irish

by Kathleen Sprows Cummings

My Irish citizenship papers arrived this week. By virtue of having a grandparent born in Ireland, my siblings and I were eligible to apply for this status, and I responded enthusiastically to my sister's proposal that we pursue this opportunity (especially when she volunteered to do all the research and paperwork, which involved, among other tasks, tracking down a birth certificate for a man who was born in rural Ireland in 1899). I'll admit I was enticed by the prospect of easy travel that an EU passport would permit. But mostly I agreed for very sentimental reasons, grateful for the chance to remember and honor my family's immigrant past. So I prepared the application with a light heart and little reflection.

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.


Kelly Baker said…
Kathy, what a lovely reflection on a holiday that glories in the ahistorical. Most poignant is your parting sentence in which you wonder whether this new citizenship status is remembering or forgetting. The impulse to make one's roots tangible is something I struggle with too, but your awareness of the smelliness of history makes it an analytical as well as a personal one. I'll toast with American light beer, since I don’t have Guineas handy ;)
Tenured Radical said…
Terrific essay -- thanks.