A bit of history
My father tells me he used to dance the polka with his mother in the kitchen. Growing up, if we ever drank tea, it was green tea without milk or sugar. And no parish dinner was quite so important as the Corned Beef and Cabbage Dinner.
Because you see, I am a quarter German, a quarter Chinese, an eighth Greek, and eighth Bohemian, and, as my Mexican friends called it, a quarter cup cream – that cream being a mix of English, Irish and Scottish hailed from the fair isles a few hundred years ago. An ancestor of mine, Charles Pinckney, signed the Declaration of Independence. Another, Thomas Pinckney, was Governor of South Carolina and was John Adams running mate in 1796 (Pinckney lost).
My Chinese grandmother, Pat, grew up in Shanghai and attended a British boarding school there. While working on the Chinese side of the embassy, she married a good-looking American who worked on the American side. Soon after they were forced to leave when the People’s Republic of China was declared on October 1, 1949. She arrived by plane, at night, on Christmas Eve with her firstborn son in tow. My grandfather (the Greek and German one) would follow later on.
Through an American lens
For an American of mixed heritage, stories abound of all shapes and color, some of privilege, some of hardship. We have our pick of cultural traditions, not always recognizing the strength of culture within our own country.
When I was 18 and on a train in Italy, a group of young Poles was surprised we knew their saints. Americans may not know the geographic make-up of their Canadian neighbors to the north, but we have celebrations throughout the year built by recent and past immigrants as a way of cherishing, celebrating and passing on their culture.
In the summer, there are Portuguese festas and bullfights. In December, mañanitas for Our Lady of Guadalupe. The Tuesday before Lent, Marti Gras or Carnivale. And in March, stuck right in the middle of a season of sobriety, there stands St. Patrick’s Day.
St. Patrick’s Day, originally, is a Catholic feast celebrating a bishop who brought Catholicism to Ireland. The Day, we know it in the United States, is a celebration of Irish-American heritage.
Like other festivities in the United States more than 100 years old, some reverence is lost in translation. Commercialism abounds. Those unrelated to its origin take the fun elements they like and leave the rest. It is easy to forget what it means at its heart and how it can be a good for those who participate. But like Trick-or-Treating, shared experiences and traditions build community. It matters.
We are Irish
“We are Irish,” I told my children. Their numbers are minuscule compared to my already small fractions of what heritage I can count as my own beyond “American.”
To the casual observer and census forms, we are white, but I want my children to know what goes on beyond color labels. Brown is not just brown, no black just black. Our familial backgrounds mean something and we honor those who came before us by trying our best to learn a little something about them.
We are Irish, I say. Our last name is Casey. My maiden name is McGuire. And no cultural celebration was ever as steady in my life as the Corned Beef and Cabbage Dinner.
This is the year we kick it up, by hosting festivities in our home, by continuing the tradition of attending the aforementioned dinner at St. Anthony’s, by reading stories recommended by Sarah MacKenzie of Read-Aloud Revival about Ireland, St. Patrick and Leprechauns, by watching “Darby O’Gill and the Little People,” by singing traditional Irish folk tunes and praying traditional Irish prayers.
We are Irish. We may never have been to the old country, but our people came from there, and their journeys and struggles, we will hold dear.