Before I embarked on a month-long family history odyssey in Ireland last year, I was corresponding with a distant cousin who was born and raised there and then moved as an adult to Australia. At one point, he asked me, “do you feel Irish?” As an American who’s lived in Europe, I know better than to lay claim to other nationalities. The French have just the eye roll for such pretensions. And so I stifled my Irish pride and gave him a wordy, self-conscious answer that ended with “How Irish that makes me, I guess, is up to ‘real’ Irish people”.
Regarding your Irishness – I say go for it and fuck the begrudgers! If you feel Irish then you are Irish. If you don’t, you [aren’t]. I don’t think it is up to anyone to define that other than yourself. I understand you are sensitive to the stereotypical ‘Yank proclaiming [they’re] Irish’, which might appear fake, but you seem to have as good a case as anyone to be an Irishman.
So there I had it, license from a ‘real’ Irishman (or is he an Australian now, or an Irish-Australian) to consider myself Irish. Even so, I remained skeptical about the legitimacy of my taking up the mantle. What does it mean to be Irish anyway?
Three of my grandparents have forebears from the island of Ireland. Of these, my maternal grandmother Doreen’s Irish ancestors, hailing from Counties Cork, Louth, and Down were the last to immigrate to North America, all after the Great Famine. My grandma Doreen’s great-grandfather, Thomas O’Brien, was born and raised in Carrigroe, a townland between the West Cork towns of Clonakilty and Rosscarbery. He’s the wee one in middle of the photo below flanked by his first cousin and his son, both Catholic priests.
(L to R) Fr. James A. Murray, Thomas O’Brien, and Fr. Thomas Benedict O’Brien
Thomas, as the sixth child out of twelve, likely emigrated primarily for economic reasons. His eldest brother, Michael, stood to inherit the family farm. Daniel, the second son, moved to Clonakilty and married there. James, the next in line, married and settled at Sam’s Cross, a few kilometers to the north. John became a priest whose appointments were all in West Cork. Kate, the eldest daughter, married and moved near Blarney. Thomas at 26 or 27, left for New York where he remained for a couple of years before ultimately settling in Marshall County, Illinois, where all of my own grandparents lived at one time or another. The younger siblings variously ended up in Australia, the States, Bandon Convent, etc.
Thomas’s family had long supported the Irish drive for independence. In 1841, his uncle, John Murray, donated money to the effort to repeal the 1800 Act of Union that bound Great Britain and Ireland legislatively. Thomas’s brother, Fr. John, was remembered for hearing the confessions of Fenians at Kilmeen when they were turned away by the parish priest in Clonakilty. He is also mentioned in Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa‘s memoirs. Thomas himself was well-regarded enough in independence-minded circles to have his obituary appear in John Devoy‘s Gaelic American. A veritable encomium, it lauded my great-great-great-grandfather for having “never forgot[ten] the land of his birth” and for being “always ready with purse and voice to aid any movement to benefit Ireland”. He was called “[o]ne of that fine old type of the Irish pioneer who did so much for the progress and civilization of his adopted country and the spread therein of the Catholic faith”. This good nationalist Irish Catholic not only didn’t forget the land of his birth, but also returned there twice, the second time in the early 1900s when he was in his 70s. Even though he spent the majority of his life in the US and was naturalized in 1868, it would be hard to argue against his Irishness, his identity being bound up with Ireland however you might define it.
One of Thomas’s nieces, Marianne, grew up on the farm at Sam’s Cross where her father James O’Brien and Johanna, née McCarthy, settled after marriage. (Johanna, incidentally, is credited with inventing the original recipe for Clonakilty Blackpudding. I accrue more Irish points there by association, no doubt.) The Atlantic wasn’t too formidable a barrier to the Sam’s Cross O’Briens keeping in touch with our lot in Camp Grove, Illinois: by the time Marianne had a family of her own, she was still close enough with her uncle Thomas that when her son, Pat, emigrated as a teenager in 1900, he lived with Thomas and his wife Ellen and those of their children that remained at home. Pat eventually moved to the city and became a police captain in South Chicago, returning downstate now and again on holidays to regale cousins with tales of cops and mobsters.
Several years after Pat emigrated, his younger brother Michael went to live with their sister Hannie in London. It was as an expatriate that Michael joined the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), the clandestine organization whose military council organized the East Rising in 1916. Gaining prominence during the Rising, Michael would go on to become a towering figure in 20th century Irish history. His roles included president of the IRB, Sinn Féin politician, Finance Minister of the newly-declared Irish Republic, the Director of Intelligence of the IRA, delegate to the Anglo-Irish Treaty negotiations, Chairman of the Provisional Government, and Commander-in-Chief of the National Army. Assassinated by anti-Treaty IRA forces during the civil war that followed independence, he died a hero in the eyes of some, a traitor in the eyes of others. With no children of his own, his siblings, and then his nephews and nieces, and now his great-nephews and great-nieces are the keepers of his legacy. This generation knows him only through the stories of their parents and grandparents and through inherited documents and photos. And at the same time, many of them have directly participated in the ongoing political project of independent Ireland that he furthered. They have held political office (primarily in the Fine Gael party), practice law, teach, work in humanitarian organizations, and so on.
Memorial card for Daniel Patrick O’Brien formerly in the possession of his cousin’s daughter, Hannie Collins.
So I think I’ve sufficiently demonstrated that my ancestors and my relatives are Irish and in fact have been instrumental in shaping what Ireland is today. But does that make me Irish? What about the generations between me and good Irish Thomas? His son, my grandma’s grandfather, Daniel Patrick O’Brien, for example, never set foot on Irish soil, being born and raised in Illinois and dying at 42.
His brother Mike, on the other hand, made trips back to Ireland and so though he too was born and raised in Illinois, he got to know the country his parents grew up in and the relatives they left behind. A letter from their first cousin Ellen “Nell” O’Brien-Twohig in Dublin to her niece in America mention a visit Mike made to Limerick to ‘find particulars’ on the history of the family. In the letter, Nell reproduces a retelling of a legend about how the O’Briens (traditionally a family name associated with County Clare) ended up in West Cork that she attributes to Mike.
Daniel Patrick and Michael Paul O’Brien, brothers. 1901.
Here’s the legend as it appeared:
In the Penal Days when Catholics were deprived of property if they did not conform to the new Religion, the heir of Lord [Inchiquin] (O’Brien of Clare) saw a young boy of 18 hanged on a tree near the entrange gate as he passed by on horseback one day. He knew the boy, cut down the body, and rode on indignantly after a company of Yeomanry which had passed on. On overtaking them, he asked the leader why this outrage had been committed, and he said “what did the death of a Papist mean to him” upon which young O’Brien lifted his gun, and shot the other dead. Realizing too late what he had done, he rode madly on and some time during the night, got back to his Castle. Everywhere, the hue and cry had been raised. His mother begged him to fly to the Coast and try to get a passage in one of the ships which then did much trade round the different counties.
Luckily, one was just going to sail and he took passage, going by Kerry, round by Cork, where at a certain place, he got off and wandered inland for some miles.
He asked and received hospitality at a respectable house, the story goes on to tell that he remained on, joining in the odd duties inside and outside the house as the Father of the family had only just died. A few years passed peacefully and he thought all may be forgotten if he returned home so he set out on a return journey. When he at length reached it, his Mother and Sweetheart would not receive him. They had given up the Catholic Religion, the girl was engaged to the next brother who had been made the heir in the belief that the elder had disappeared forever, so he went back to Cork and married the young girl in the house where he had been received so kindly and who really had loved him from the start.
This family lore really delves into what it means to be Irish not only in general, but to those past generations of my family on both sides of the Atlantic. This is an Irishness uncovered by an Irish-American and retold by his cousin, the godmother of Michael Collins. So here, being Irish means Catholicism, bravery, loyalty, perhaps rashness. (Unless you’re a woman, then it means treachery or long-suffering patience, depending upon which woman you are in the story.) And even County Cork, if we’re to follow the metaphor, is the truest bastion of Irishness, the place where the O’Brien fleeing British Protestant treachery found kindess and love.
Irish Catholicism has remained important in my family. Thomas and Ellen O’Brien gave money toward the construction of the Catholic church that stands not too far from their farmstead. Saint Patrick’s in Camp Grove still has two stained glass windows with the family name on them, though politics within the Catholic Diocese of Peoria seem to be precipitating the demolition of the century-old church. It was in this parish that Thomas and Ellen’s funerals were held, Pat Collins coming down to be a pallbearer. It was there that their son, Rev. Thomas B. O’Brien performed his first Solemn Mass. My great-great-grandparents, Dan O’Brien and Sadie Colgan were married there, as were my great-grandparents, and my grandparents. Countless family baptisms, first communions, confirmations, marriages, and funerals happened there. The church’s hall, called O’Brien Hall for a time, was the social hub for the Irish in the area. When my great-grandmother, Evelyn, married my great-grandfather, a German-American man from an Apostolic Christian background, he converted to Catholicism wholeheartedly. His baptism and their marriage appear in the church records. Similarly my Lutheran father, though he did not convert, agreed to marry my mother in the Catholic church. I was baptized Catholic and the plan was to raise me that way, maintaining this deeply-held faith and artifact of our Irishness.
After my parents’ divorce, however, my mom met a man who, coincidentally, like a sizable number of people in the North of Ireland, was a Presbyterian with Scottish roots. As their relationship developed and led to marriage, my mom became a Protestant and they wed in a Presbyterian church that we attended for several years thereafter. So, while the rest of my mother’s family remained Catholic and we attended mass on the occasions of the first communions and confirmations of our cousins, I was taught in the Protestant churches we attended that Catholicism was misguided at best.
And yet, there was some powerful remnant of the Irish Catholicism that was passed down to me. As I learned about Irish history, I knew who ‘my people’ were, that the Catholics who were, after all, my ancestors and are my relatives, were the ‘good guys’. Despite my then-dogmatic opinions that were highly critical of the theology, practice, and traditions of the Catholic church, I still felt a strong affinity for Catholicism, at least as a cultural signifier. During my trip to Ireland last year, I traveled to the North and met my Colgan relatives in County Down, a place where sectarianism is a much fresher wound than far down in the Republic. I heard stories of what my Catholic relatives there endured and was surprised at the depth of my own anger at the presence of Orange Halls and my contempt for the Union Jacks strung up everywhere for the Queen of England’s Diamond Jubilee.
A lot of the cognitive dissonance between the religious identity I was raised with and my affinity for Catholicism came from an Evangelical understanding of religion that centered on right belief. I remember finding it absurd when I met someone who claimed to be “half-Catholic” because to me a religious identifier hinged solely on beliefs. In fact, what underlay her claim is the truth that religious practice is intimately bound up in other facets of culture. In college, while I clung to my Evangelical beliefs and, indeed, identity (because after all, American Evangelicalism is just as enmeshed in the particular as any other iteration of religion), I made room for Catholicism. In fact, I stopped being part of Campus Crusade and began attending RCIA and hanging out at the Newman Center. I went on a retreat and was deeply moved by it. Though ultimately, I did not convert or reconvert or return or whatever verb the reader might choose to describe what would’ve happened if I’d chosen to get confirmed, I do feel strongly that engaging with a tradition that I view as part of my heritage was a good and meaningful thing to do.
A funny thing happened, though, on my way to romanticizing Catholicism and identifying with Irish Catholic culture. As I mentioned, three of my grandparents have Irish ancestry that I know about. I’ve chronicled the history of my mother’s mother’s Irishness and though I know much less about the details, I know that my mother’s father is the great-grandson of an Irish Catholic woman who married a German Catholic. On my paternal grandfather’s side, however, is a whole other kind of Irishness: Methodists, likely from the North of Ireland. While a great-great-great-grandfather on my mom’s side was a proud Fenian and Michael Collins’s great-uncle, a great-great-great-grandmother on my dad’s side was born in a tiny Ontario town named for the site of the final battle in a campaign in which Protestant British forces quelled a Catholic uprising. In Culloden, which is now barely on the map, there was a local chapter of the Orange Order, but no Catholic church.
So how to reconcile with that also being my heritage in some way? How does that narrative fit into my Irishness? In reality, like so many Americans, but also like so many people around the world, I am the collision of all kinds of identities, some conflicting. And yet, to answer my distant cousin’s question, “do I feel Irish”, the answer is emphatically, yes. And I feel an attachment to Catholicism and to Evangelicalism and to being American and so on.
What’s important to recognize about these kinds of identities is that even though we may not see fit to espouse them outright, we are free to acknowledge the impact they’ve had on who we are. I am not an Irish citizen, I do not live or participate in civic life in Ireland, but I exist because of the political and economic conditions in Ireland that led my great-great-great-grandfather to emigrate. I am not an active member of the Catholic Church, but I would not be who I am without Catholicism.
And to be sure, my identity is what you make of it. I would be ‘Irish’ whether I acknowledged it or not, just as I would have the same genes whether or not I knew about the ancestors I inherited them from. Insofar as we carry on the cultures, quirks, values and even as we developed others in response to those presented to us by our families, our ancestry is always with us. Because knowing the genealogy of the stories I’ve inherited and understanding them in context is important to me as knowing the bare bones facts of names and dates, I’ve been able to bring my family tree to life by connections with some of my distant cousins in Ireland. I have spent time with them there, been welcomed into their homes, and even formed ongoing friendships. Their lives and what they’re making of Ireland today and my life and how I participate in society are all tethered to thousands of years of Irish history.