St. Patrick’s Day was a big deal in my house.
When my mom was in her twenties, she went to Ireland with her best friend Jesse and they saw a leprechaun. The leprechaun was furious for being spotted and mumbled some words in Gaelic that my mom didn’t understand. The next year, my mom realized that the leprechaun cursed her for spotting him.
So each year he came back to our house and chaos ensued. I was terrified of this leprechaun. It was hard not to be terrified. My parents told us that he came the night before St. Patrick’s Day and went into our rooms. If we didn’t have our feet covered with socks or shoes, he would bite our toes off. So every St. Patrick’s Day Eve I would go to bed with shoes on and prepared myself for a long, terror filled, sleepless night. I was so scared of my shoes falling off in my sleep and the leprechaun taking my toes. One year I told my three year old cousin about this ritual and told her that she needs to make sure to wear shoes to bed. My aunt called my mom that night to see if she could convince me to tell Kirsten that it was all a tale, but I couldn’t do that to her. I couldn’t lie to make her feel better… what if my little cousin got her toes chewed off and it was all my fault?! So I instead suggested to my mom that she advise Kirsten to wear shoes to bed.
I woke up each St. Patrick’s Day incredibly relieved. I was still alive and better yet, alive with all ten toes. Then I would look around my room and calculate the damage the leprechaun caused. Each year he wreaked havoc in a different way. Some years he was against us – he would turn my room upside down in a way that looks like we had a visit from The Cat in the Hat. Our vacuum cleaner was on my fish tank, my table and chairs were turned over with a tea party set up upside down, my clothes were everywhere. I was annoyed with the leprechaun, knowing that I would have to clean up after his mess.
Most years he was on our side against our parents. Instead of our rooms being turned upside down, the house would be. He left banners all over the house (all upside down, he had a thing for that…), spilled green powder over our floors, streamers ran through our living room. He would fill our rooms with dozens and dozens of green balloons. We would run into our parents room and announce that the leprechaun was back. They’d roll their eyes and get annoyed that he kept this grudge after all these years. We would go down to the kitchen to have breakfast, only to find that the leprechaun left our two forbidden treasures: Lucky Charms and Mondo juice. We looked up at our parents, sure they would veto the sugary breakfast, only to find them reluctantly giving into the presents and allowing us to eat the sugar packed cereal and juice we were normally denied.
My favorite year was the year our leprechaun hijacked our lunch. He stole our lunch bags and hid them, leaving us clues to find them. After a long hunt, I finally found mine in the medicine cabinet of our mostly unused second bathroom. I opened my lunchbox to find that the leprechaun filled it with dozens of candies, chocolates and my coveted sugary Mondo juice. I ran to my brother to compare hauls then we looked up at our parents. “Looks like that’s lunch,” they said to us. I always felt like I was getting away with murder on St. Patrick’s Day.
We were the only Irish kids in our neighborhood so St. Patrick’s Day was a day where we could share our heritage with our neighbors. My brother and I would be decked out in Irish clothes – kilts, skirts, bulky and itchy Irish sweaters (yes, even my brother…) and would share the special Irish treats my parents picked up at the Irish Store in town with our neighbors. We always ate a big meal that night, always including mashed potatoes and soda bread, and Irish music echoed through our house. I was always reminded that I had a face like Ireland – curly red hair, green eyes, pale skin and freckles.
The weekend before or after St. Patrick’s Day, we would drive to my mom’s best friend’s house for a feast. She made corned beef and cabbage, potato soup, mashed potatoes, Bailey’s ice cream and always had some sort of new treat to try, like sorbet in fruit rinds. I loved those visits. We would hang out with my mom’s friends from college and her waitressing days. March Madness was always playing and we always had some sort of basketball game going in the backyard. When I finally got over being terrified of their golden retrievers, I loved visiting their dogs, and we would see pictures from whatever exotic vacation my mom’s best friend and her wife went on that year. My brother and I were met with belated (and incredibly generous) Christmas gifts ranging from Irish jewelry to artifacts from their travels to gift cards to our favorite stores. St. Patrick’s Day was always a fond memory for our family.
As a college student, I spent my St. Patty’s Day going to the Chicago Irish Parade then checking out the river. I hosted the “Beer Olympics” and went on pub crawls. As a recent college grad, I would make my roommates my mom’s shepherd’s pie and spend the day with friends drinking green beer and eating soda bread.
Recently, I was asked by a friend who recently immigrated to the US about St. Patrick’s Day. I told him how it’s usually seen as a drinking holiday, with floods of bros in green puking their way down Clark Street, but in Irish families it’s a day about good family, good food and remembering our ancestors who came to the US to provide a better life.
I don’t know much about my family’s immigration story. There’s two reasons for that. On my mom’s side, her grandparents didn’t like talking about Ireland. It wasn’t filled with the same warm feelings I have towards the region. They came to the US to escape a country in the midst of civil war and famine. So the old country wasn’t mentioned. And there’s little that I know about my dad’s family in general. My grandmother was very sick most of my dad’s life and his dad was constantly working, so they didn’t have much time to tell stories of ancestry. Both of my grandparents died before I was born, and my dad died when I was thirteen, so my only stories from his side come from my Aunt Rosemary when we’re able to visit.
What I do know is that my great grandparents came from Ireland in the mass emigration of the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. They wanted their kids to grow up speaking perfect English without a brogue because of the hardship they faced for speaking differently. It gave my grandmother a love of diction and language, which was passed onto her kids. I know that the Irish catholic escaped religious and political persecution. That natural disaster brought on the potato famine, which starved the country. I know that when they came to the United States, it was hard to find work because they were not welcome. It wasn’t until the Italian, Polish and Jewish communities immigrated to the US that they were able to blend into the whiteness of the United States and instead point their fingers to the other immigrants to avoid the finger being pointed their way. Fortunately my family welcomed the new immigrants and passed that mindset down through generations. But I do fear we’re an anomaly.
The rampant racism and xenophobia of the Irish these days baffles me. I’m looking specifically at you, Boston, Philly and Southside Chicago Irish. These pockets that we settled in have now become a breeding ground for Make America Great Again hats to roam free. I just can’t understand it. In recent history, our ancestors came to escape the same horrors that recent immigrants face, but we support a president who won’t accept Syrian refugees. We tell people to go back to their own countries like those same words weren’t spit in the faces of our own relatives. We tell people to speak English like our thick brogues were well received or that Gaelic isn’t a dying language because Britain forced us to speak their own. We target Muslims like Protestants targeted the Irish Catholic. And don’t tell me that it’s different because your ancestors immigrated “the right way.” Back then, all you needed was a boat ticket and proof that you weren’t sick when you landed on the US shore. We were taught to hate the “other” because our ancestors were so scared of falling into the “other” again.
We don’t get to decide to close our borders now that we’re here. The Catholic values that I was taught didn’t include turning kids from war-torn countries away. It didn’t tell us to disregard the sick because they’re using up too much of our money. And it definitely didn’t tell me to hate my neighbor.
Enjoy your St. Patrick’s Day – whether you find yourself around the table with family and a feast, on a Wrigleyville bar crawl, or like me, quietly baking some Irish soda bread to share with neighbors while trying to decide whether or not to watch the river turn green. But I encourage you to take some time out of this holiday to remember your own family’s immigration story and how you can be a little more empathetic to the stories of our newest immigrants.
May the road rise up to meet you.
May the wind be always at your back.
May the sun shine warm upon your face; the rains fall soft upon your fields and until we meet again, may God hold you in the palm of His hand.