Becoming Irish

Although she was an Irish-American, a deeper understanding of her roots, with frequent trips to Ireland, led this writer to pursue dual-citizenship.

I was born Irish-American but didn’t notice for a while. With four grandparents from Ireland, I am about as Irish as anyone could be coming indirectly from an island routinely overrun and settled by any gang that could build a boat. There’s good reason why some Irish look Scandinavian, some bear French names like Molyneaux and D’Arcy, and some, like part of my family, were called "the black Irish" because of their dark hair, attributed to trade with Spain. And they weren’t trading wigs.

But we were not a family that waved the Irish flag. When I was growing up in Shadyside, my mother wouldn’t even go to the St. Patrick’s Day parade, declaring they were "a bunch of drunks." We didn’t go to Irish socials as our Irish-born neighbors, the Muldowneys, did. We didn’t learn Irish dances. My grandmother lived with us. She had left Ireland, possibly in utero, and passed along one bit of the Irish language to us: "pog mo thoin," which means "kiss my arse," as the Irish say. When my Irish-speaking cousin Taig Curran of Spiddal, County Galway, asked me, "Do you have the Irish?" meaning the language spoken in the Irish Gaeltacht, where he lives, I produced the phrase, both shocking and amusing him.

My Aunt Margaret, who also lived with us, belonged to a snooty group called the Gaelic Arts Society. She took me as a teenager to see an Irish troupe of dancers at the late Syria Mosque in Oakland. I was totally charmed and suddenly proud to be Irish. And, of course, John F. Kennedy magnified that pride even more.

But my real move toward becoming a card-carrying Irish citizen came in 1968, when, encouraged by Patricia Sullivan Dolan, a fellow English instructor at Community College of Allegheny County, I and my husband, Ed Wintermantel, a fourth-generation American who doesn’t think of himself as German-American, took a three-week tour of Ireland and its missing six counties, called Northern Ireland. For two weeks we toured the whole island. The third week we met relatives. The experiences were black and white.

On the tour we found teenage pickets marching outside our hotel in Limerick. Our first introduction to the keen Irish sense of individual rights – and wrongs. Up in Eyre Square in Galway, we saw a sculpture of Irish poet Padraic O Conaire. I had a great-grandmother named Anne Conner and felt connected. We stopped at the grave of William Butler Yeats, one of the four Irish writers to win the Nobel Prize in Literature in the 20th century. I realized the Irish respect for poets and artists of any sort. Since 1969, artists living in the Irish Republic are exempt from income tax on works they sell.

We noticed that the Irish cherish the word and have lots of fun with words and rhythm. Kids and adults regularly get up and recite, sing, play an instrument or dance in the local pub, in the family parlor or at neighborhood gatherings. Even the painfully shy break into this joyful, uninhibited behavior.

In the late-1960s (and sometimes even today in the hinterlands), cars and buses waited for herds of cows or sheep to clear the roads. Farmers still carried their milk into the village creameries in large metal containers in a cart drawn by a donkey. They heated their homes with turf gathered in bogs and also hauled in by the donkey. The pace of life was slower. Believe me, it has picked up since Ireland joined the European Union; people abandoned the black bike as a means of transportation and just about everyone prospered.

In Northern Ireland, we learned that Irish Catholics and Protestants still argue about where St. Patrick is buried, among other pertinent issues. On tour, we dined in some of the old great houses, formerly occupied by British landlords, and discovered that the Irish sunbathe fully clothed, which is recommended in their mild climate. With the humidity, 70 degrees feels like a heat wave. We also saw the Giant’s Causeway and loved the myth of a giant’s building a roadway across the water to Scotland to explain the phenomenon.

Touring the north as a travel writer for this magazine in 1978, I saw a different Ireland touched with hate and fear. Standing in the Europa Hotel lobby in Belfast, we heard that that very spot had been bombed eight times. By 2001 the Europa had become "Europe’s most bombed hotel," with 32 strikes, according to Let’s Go travel guide. Also in Belfast, I saw very young armed soldiers. The scariest thing about them was their own obvious fear. No one likes an armed and nervous soldier. Belfast is a much more peaceful place these days – usually.

But throughout our first three weeks and first trip to Ireland and Northern Ireland, we were overwhelmed with the green fields and valleys, the whole unspoiled rural world and the sea. The kindness, friendliness and humor of the people also impressed us. The Lakes of Killarney were just luscious frosting on the cake. Of course, we kissed the Blarney Stone (twice for me by now). We felt sorry for some older Americans who waited too long to visit and couldn’t navigate the castle’s corkscrew stairway up to the kissing level.

I love being in a manageable-sized country where you can cross from the Atlantic in the west to the Irish Sea in three hours. Though we were surprised to learn that some of my relatives in the west of Ireland had never made the trip to Dublin. I love the water everywhere, including the rain. I love the people who, regardless of level of education, have an opinion on everything and a sincere empathy for any underdog anywhere. That’s no doubt prompted by centuries of living under the British thumb and having family members working as missionaries or living as immigrants all over the globe.

On our own tour, we hooked up with a great-aunt, Bridget Scanlon Hayes, my grandfather’s sister. She didn’t remember him because he emigrated when she was a little kid. I didn’t know him because he died before I was born. But this man that neither of us knew brought us together.

My aunt’s son Jack, a "spoiled priest" (a seminary dropout), had emigrated to the United States. He smoothed the way for us. We were treated like family – taken to the kitchen to sit beside a stove heated with turf. Across the room, a tiny black-and-white TV played an "I Love Lucy" rerun. As we traveled among the relatives, they asked, "How long are you home for?" I began to feel as though I had come home. But my husband wasn’t keen about eating meat drawn up from the well out back.

Later at cousin Danny Scanlon’s farm, we saw the remains of my grandfather’s birthplace, now a barn, and met Danny’s gang of barefoot kids. And then another farm, another cousin, Sarah Buckley, who had made good, her mother told us, marrying a man with 30 cows. When I asked to use the bathroom, she took me to a bucket in her bedroom. "Rich" is relative.

Then on to Listowel, a literary center in County Kerry, where the educated "Bridge Road crowd," as cousin Jack referred to them by their address, with their Victorian wallpaper and lampshades and Louis L’Amour Westerns, seemed less than enthusiastic at meeting Americans.
Many visits and many years later, when our daughter, Cristi, was doing an internship in the ’90s on an Irish horse farm, we heard that, at least in her experience, the Irish had a howl mocking visiting Americans. She was very upset about it.

On that first visit, we traveled with a couple of sisters on their fourth trip to the Emerald Isle. We couldn’t imagine why anyone would do that with the whole world to choose from. Then I began trekking over there every couple of years. I stopped counting at trip 13 because it was an unlucky number. I’m still inclined to go hang out in the west.

Often, I visited friends Pat and Harry Dolan, who bought a 300-year-old farmhouse in Dunquin at the tip of the Dingle Peninsula. Through them we met delightful Irish folk from the neighborhood and "blow-ins" (summer visitors) from Dublin and Cork. One is so convinced that Americans like a fatty diet that she makes entire meals of fried food. Even fried pineapple dessert.

Dunquin is an extraordinary spot. I’m not alone in my admiration of it. A National Geographic writer called it "the most beautiful place in the world." I sometimes walk around there, the only human in sight for miles, watching the Atlantic smash against the cliffs, watching the clouds carry in the next rainstorm, watching the mist move down the mountain, watching the sheep watching me, and I mutter and mutter, "Incredible. Incredible." That’s what it is.

One day I read an article about how to obtain Irish citizenship, which you could do while maintaining U.S. citizenship. So back in 1993, I decided to pursue dual citizenship. Not that I’m not a loyal American; I believe that there’s no country like it in the world. But the country has disappointed me from the triple assassinations of the 1960s – J.F.K., M.L.K., R.F.K. – through My Lai, the Supreme Court appointment of George W. Bush as president, Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo. The election of Barack Obama, who has roots in Ireland like 28 former U.S. presidents, made me feel really good about the nation again.

The process of obtaining my Irish citizenship was relatively simple. All I had to do was trace – on paper – one grandparent back to Ireland. If I actually had a parent born in Ireland, the Irish Republic would consider me a citizen. There are no doubt hundreds of Pittsburghers that Ireland would recognize as citizens. Many may not even know that.

I began with the only grandparent I ever knew – trying to find a baptismal certificate for her in her neighborhood in County Kerry. To no avail. That’s when I began to wonder what she meant when she said she was carried out of Ireland.

I switched the search to her husband, my grandfather. No problem. I was in with his baptismal certificate from Pullough, also in County Kerry. The Irish Consulate in New York sent the good news effective Aug. 10, 1993, recognizing me as a foreign-born Irish person: No. 226F. I have yet to press the issue by applying for an Irish passport.

Of course, all this delving into roots can lead to unexpected discoveries. That’s why everyone warns you not to explore your genealogy for fear of what you might find out. Who knows? That might even include a direct line to Judas Iscariot or to Oliver Cromwell, that 17th-century British regicidal dictator and conqueror of Ireland. (My family once named a rather goofy dog after Cromwell.) I can affirm that there are dangers in the genealogical game. But family secrets are family secrets. I’ll never tell.

Ann Curran, a Pittsburgh magazine contributing editor, is author of Placement Test, a book of poems set in Pittsburgh and Ireland.

Categories: Community Feature, From the Magazine