Tuesday, March 17, 2009

And what the hell does "begorrah" mean, anyway?

Despite or perhaps because of being the descendant of Irish immigrants, I am extremely ambivalent about St. Patrick's Day. This is probably the result of having lived in Boston and Chicago most of my adult life. Even setting aside the twee sweater-wearing folksong-singing stereotypes (I'm looking at you, Clancy Brothers), the denatured leprechauns with their pots of gold, the pseudo-Mardi Gras atmosphere, all things Riverdance, and the green dye poured into the Chicago river every year, I have difficulty finding any real connection to the land of my ancestors. How is it still "the old country" 135 years after my ancestors made their North American landfall? If I were ever to visit Ireland, I'd be a foreigner there (albeit, it must be admitted, a very familiar-looking foreigner). I am neither Catholic nor Protestant (I'm not even Christian). I have no particular stake in "the Troubles" other than a hearty wish that, starting right now, nobody else should have to die over them.

What did I inherit from my Irish ancestors other than my coloring and my freckles (and possibly my love for cabbage and potatoes)? Certain patterns might be observed in my extended family, like a tendency toward large families, a lot of marriages between outspoken women and taciturn men, an overall Catholicism, and so on. But I'm Jewish (by choice), childless (not by choice, still working on that), and married to a loquacious extrovert. Some of what I am must be informed by the immigrant experience; my grandfather remembered seeing job listings marked "No Irish Need Apply," and I lived for years in the former fiefdoms of Mayors Curley and Daley. But I can't quite identify where those connections live, and it doesn't seem to justify the wearing of the green today. Much in the same way that flying the American flag was co-opted by jingoism in the post-9/11 era, a claim to be Irish on St. Patrick's day is more about green beer and block parties than about anything I can recognize as identity. So I'm staying out of it altogether until I can figure out where I stand.


Anonymous said...

an exclamation, "by God"

Anonymous said...

Your grandfather did not see signs such as "No Irish Need Apply" because they did not exist.You should gooogle;

Jensen, no Irish neeed apply.

Remarkably many believe that such signs existed yet there is absolutely no evidence for them.It seems the myth was exploited by Irish community leaders to foster a sense of communal solidarity.

I am Irish and live in Ireland and it often find it strange that some non Irish people associate red hair and freckles as a particularly Irish attribute.Certainly some Irish people have that apperance,but proably less than 2% have that combination.Its no more frequent than many parts of Britain ,The Netherlands or northern France,or Virginia for that matter.
Again your penchant for cabbage and potatoes is not particularly Irish, it's many years since I ate cabbage,and I expect thats typical. The Irish are very partial to Chinese food ,where as The British favour Indian.
I have never ever heard an Irish person use the word "begorrah".It may have been used generations ago as an euphisism for By God, but is now merely an 1950's Hollywood stereotype.
Since you are of Irish origin you owe yourself a visit to Ireland.I think the scales will be lifted from your eyes.

SEB said...

Sorry, Anonymous, but you've missed the point. The point is that I don't think any of those things are connected to the real Ireland, whatever that is about; and whatever it is that I *have* inherited from my Irish ancestors, it doesn't justify joining in the kind of idiocy that people get up to over here in the name of St. Patrick's day. Hence the title of the post ("begorrah" being part of that idiocy).

Please get down off your high horse and note that I didn't bring up red hair and freckles; you did. I have near-black hair, blue eyes, and fair skin tending to freckles, and I'm pretty sure they came from my ancestors because there's really no alternative. It doesn't matter that they're not only typical of Ireland; in my case it's pretty clear that that's where they came from.

Also please note that whatever connection I might have to Ireland through my ancestors, I have to the Ireland of 1871, when they came over to the US, not to the "Celtic Tiger" of recent decades. I'm pretty sure my ancestors weren't eating Chinese food; and I'm equally sure that my own partiality to Chinese food comes from my many years spent living in China - not from my family (which is, however, where I learned to make potatoes mashed up with cabbage). It is ridiculous to expect diasporic communities to reflect contemporary identity in the originary culture, which is among the reasons I have no particular plans to visit Ireland (unless it were to visit one of my friends who lives there) - whatever it is today has relatively little to do with me, and I don't think that going there would give me any insights into my own identity. If I do ever go, it will be for the place itself or the people I know there, and not for some misguided attempt at seeking "the auld country."