MY IRISH HERITAGE

A PURPLE SHAMROCK

It was the 1980’s and St. Patrick’s Day was fast approaching. I was in our local grocery store shopping for the ingredients for a special St. Patrick’s Day meal. The produce section had a feature on purple shamrocks for $4.99. I had not intended to purchase any plants – we were pretty well stocked in that regard – but I was intrigued by the purple shamrock display. I had never seen this plant before. Growing up in a family proud of its Irish heritage we had specialized in green shamrock plants for March 17th. But I succumbed to the plant display and went home with one of these interesting plants, actually the one pictured above. It has grown and flowered in the past thirty plus years. In 1990 it survived our move from southern Maryland to Northern Virginia. It is an absolute beauty!!!

I am particularly fond of our purple shamrock because I find it symbolic of Irish beauty and strength and durability. And it has been with us for so long it is part of our family lore. Both my mother and father were of Irish descent. My father’s parents who were born in Ireland were married in Peoria, Illinois – she was not yet 20, he was in his late 20’s. What my brother Pete and I would just like to know is did they come to the States planning to marry or was theirs a romance that flourished on American soil. We don’t know why they were married in Illinois, but we do know that after their marriage they then lived in the Hell’s Kitchen section of New York. When my father was a young toddler the family moved to New Jersey where two more sons were born. I have few memories of these grandparents. From my father I learned that they were hard working, strong willed but loving parents. Grandfather died before I was born and my grandmother died when I was 7. Since my own family lived on Long Island and grandmother lived in New Jersey and because we had no car, visiting was difficult. Moreover, my mother unfortunately did not feel welcomed by her mother-in-law who would call and invite my father to come visit and to please bring his oldest son with him. Mom and Pete and I were excluded from the invite.

My mother’s parents, also of Irish heritage, met when they were both students at Cornell University in the 1890’s. They were married in 1900 after Grandfather had attained prominence in the legal field in his home town of Ithaca and had been appointed a judge. My uncle Don was born in 1901 and my mother and her twin sister in 1903. These precious children were denied much time with their mother, Margaret O’Shea McAllister, because she succumbed to cancer in 1905. A memorial pamphlet published after her death talked of a loving, caring, generous and very musical woman. Years later my grandfather remarried. Nana was an amazing woman who took on the role of mother to three young children with gusto and efficiency. My Mom, with tremendous appreciation for her step mother, would occasionally express to me, during that final year of her life when she lived with us, her regrets that she had never gotten to know her own mother who was always described as such a gentle soul.

Grandfather Mc Allister was one of my most favorite older relatives. He died when I was eleven. He had a quiet strength that made his kindness and goodness all the more powerful . I loved him very much.

My mother’s family was probably as proud of their Irish heritage as Pop’s family. But that did not mean that the families really clicked. When Leon Uris’s TRINITY was published in 1976 my mother was totally absorbed by this tale of Ireland. She was particularly taken by the strong matriarchal figure (unfortunately I can not remember the character’s name ) who plays a dominant role in the story. I read the book when it first came out before sharing it with my mother. Mom kept repeating as she read the sections of TRINITY that focused on this woman, ” I wish this book had been written when your Dad and I were first married. It would have so helped me to better understand my mother-in-law.”

Growing up we always celebrated St. Patrick’s Day. It was very easy for Pop to start speaking with a brogue – a gift he passed on to his children. Facility with the Irish brogue stood me in good stead when I attended an all girls Catholic high school and joined the theater club. We put on two major plays a year and since the moderator of the club was Irish with a fondness for putting on Irish plays – with my brogue facility I always got a part. Pop’s brogue was particularly evident on March 17. Dinner was usually corned beef and cabbage and and there was always the wearing of something green – a tie, a bow, a shirt or blouse with easily noticed green in its design, a paper shamrock, etc.

I was always proud of my Irishness !!! Just based on my own family I thought being Irish meant you were caring and strong willed and blessed with ” the gift of the gab.” Since I was trying to figure out my future in life these traits seemed like good ones to have. Growing up we lived on a ethnically diverse street which though primarily Jewish had a sprinkling of Protestant, and I believe two other Catholic families. Two of my closest friends on the street were Jewish. They honored my holidays and I honored theirs.

When my brothers attended high school in New York City the St Patrick’s Day parade, going down Fifth Avenue, assumed major importance in our lives. Students from their military academy school marched in the parade. I hoped the high school I chose would offer the same opportunity. I thought my brothers and their classmates looked so important and so handsome as they came marching by. I loved going to the parade with my parents. There was a contagious air of excitement in the city that seemed to emanate from the parade.

My high school which celebrated St Patrick’s Day with a very festive enthusiasm, did not march in the St. Patrick’s parade. But Marymount College NYC which I attended for a year and a half to gain the necessary college credits which were a prerequisite for admittance to Cornell University’s Nursing program – Marymount did march in the parade. My brothers were at this time one in college and the other in the seminary so I was now the representative family member in the parade. I marched in two parades before moving on to nursing school.

When it was again time for the St. Patty’s parade and we were having a break from nursing school classes, I invited some of my dorm mates to join me in heading over to Fifth Avenue to watch the parade. As of old I was swept up in the excitement of the parade, and so were my friends, some of whom had never seen a St Patrick’s Day parade of this magnitude. When the cadets from my brothers’ old high school appeared in the distance I felt the same thump, thump of my heart that I used to feel as a young school girl. And then they got very close and I got a good look at these handsome young marchers whose predecessors had set my heart to going pitter patter. “Young” is the key word here. They looked so young to me. It was my first time experiencing an “in your face” reminder of the passage of time. I was now all of 19 years old – almost 20!

When I graduated from Cornell, and moved to Washington,D.C. getting an apartment originally with just two friends, we brought with us our family traditions. St Patrick’s Day was appropriately celebrated. And when Jerry and I married and raised our family we always gave due honor to the patron saint of Ireland. One is not any less American because they are proud of their Irish heritage.

Like our prized purple shamrock I have found the Irish family and friends who have been part of my life to be strong and durable , with a contagious sense of self and with pride in their Irish heritage. There are so many quotes that well express Irish wisdom. One I like: “You have got to do your own growing, no matter how tall your father was.”

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