by Constance Dunn Daley
American Reporter Correspondent
St. Simons Island, Ga.
Hominy & Hash: GREEN ROOTS
ST. SIMONS ISLAND, Ga. -- Imagine! After six decades of pride in being born Irish in America, I discover I don't know a tinker's damn about being Irish at all, and yet I can't imagine a life as anything but Irish.
In whatever generation we arrived here, we all started at rock bottom. In my house, the cobwebs in the corners of high ceilings were called Irish Curtains. Yet the Lace Curtain Irish, as comedian Fred Allen once observed, "were people who had fruit in the house even when no one was sick."
Former First Lady Hillary Clinton claims it takes a village to raise a child. Well, if that's true then the village raising me in New York in the '30s and '40s was a village of Italians, Germans, Jews, Blacks and us, the token Irish. Our tribes increased - all of our tribes - and our histories blended until we all thought alike, as Americans.
I know more about the Holocaust than I do about the potato famine; more about the African-American experience than about the complex causes leading to one of the greatest human migrations in history when the Irish fled to America to escape starvation. My history began after they got here, after they defied traditions and left their homes. I know individual stories of Irish Americans who have had impact on our own American history. But, it's all recent history.
Three years ago, after two parts in a series of four, PBS aired the chronicles of The Irish in America; the Long Journey Home, covering "the Golden Age" when the Irish made indelible marks here in theater, music, poetry, philosophy, religion, sports, labor, law and politics (from the policeman on the beat to Al Smith running for President) and, of course, movies. And all of these leaders were born to a Mother Macree, famous for raising children with character and leadership, intellect and attitude... and with the back of her hand, a howl and a hug.
It wasn't until they reached that segment I could identify at all. I could see myself in the faces of the Irish immigrants but not in the struggle - although my own early years knew the struggle of our Great Depression. I had the nature but not the same nurturing. Built into that nature is a strong pride in self and family, God and country. This country - and there are 40 million Americans of Irish descent.
The immigration roster is growing with people from all over the world trying every which way to get here. Those who don't speak the language have it toughest; those who do, melt in.
Young Irish immigrants who slide in can then go into almost any bar in New York and get a job as bartender or part of the wait staff. Those with papers collect tolls on the New Jersey turnpike. They're such lovable rascals, welcome anywhere, knowing what I've always known: If you're lucky enough to be Irish, you're lucky enough!
There was a wave of appreciation of Irish ballads when The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem toured. I think we liked their white cable-knit, sweaters and seafarer's caps more than the lyrics of their songs.
Someone commented their wars were so merry and their songs are so sad. I went to the concerts, forced my eyes to sparkle, wore green so they'd catch the reflection and hoped they'd sing songs I knew. Like, "When Irish Eyes are Smiling," or It's a Great Day for the Irish," or "My Wild Irish Rose."
They don't even know those songs. They were written by Chauncey Olcott, an American actor and singer born in Buffalo, N.Y., in 1858. He died in 1932, around the time I was born, and we sang his songs along with Irving Berlin's and George M. Cohan's all the years of my growing up. My first movie was "Little Nellie Kelly," with Judy Garland and George Murphy - now his eyes could sparkle.
It's only now, as I finally look back to my roots, I discover I'm not there. And it comes at a time when my contemporaries are studying genealogy. All our lives we've wanted to know where we're going. It seems now there's a rush to see where we've been. It's exciting to find something or someone new and trace ourselves from there to here, from then to now.
A few weeks ago I went to a high school reunion, the first in 50 years. I'm still enthralled about it. I continue to hear from people I knew then, learn the lives of people who no longer are but who knew me when. Why all of a sudden, passing the sixth decade of my life, do I go back to relive each moment?
Is it because looking back fifty years is easy but near impossible to look ahead that long? Is it because old friends will never disappoint you? They'll always do what they always did.
The Irish and the Irish in America are different from each other. St. Patrick's Day on the Emerald Isle is a holy day. He's the patron saint; he rid the isle of snakes and used the lowly shamrock to teach the Holy Trinity: three persons in one, three leaves on one stem. He's to be revered, and his day is not a day for raucous behavior.
Here we have the parade in New York where the whole city stops, the white line is painted green on Fifth Avenue, everyone wears green, Irish or not. In my working days in New York City, I actually painted a streak in my hair with green ink. (Taking it out later was a green nightmare: Clorox didn't work, peroxide didn't work, ammonia didn't work: scissors did.)
Frank McCourt, author of Angela's Ashes and 'Tis, said, "I think Irish Americans are just beginning to find themselves. I think they're a bit confused over the hyphen. They're straddling that hyphen, which confuses us all. Are you Irish or are you American? How can you be both? They're still looking across the ocean at Ireland... But until they know who they are, they'll never have any kind of identity. It should be enough to be an American, but it isn't apparently. As long as that hyphen is there, they have to learn about the achievements of their forefathers."
Whether in New York, Savannah or here on St. Simons Island, Ga., St. Patrick's Day is one of mingling with your own kind of people. They don't have to be Irish, by the way, just people who want to be - just for the day. People who can still laugh in the face of trouble, stand tall when they must sacrifice, love God in Heaven, the angels and saints (whether they show up at church or not), keep a shine on their shoes, a smile on their faces and a song in their hearts.
Who knows why I was born Irish in America? But I wish you all the joy of knowing who you are and where you came from. I may be a'-wearing o' the green, but I'm saluting the red, white and blue.
I'm enjoying my life and thinking of another thing Frank McCourt said: "If you don't enjoy your life, what the hell is the use?"