Growing up, “Irish,” to me, meant leprechauns, shamrocks, pots of gold… basically things that were “magically delicious.” Ireland was just some far-away place, full of strange, mystical things.

My maternal grandmother was fond of telling me – often, and with great gusto – that she was “100% Irish.” I wasn’t sure what that meant. Was she was related to leprechauns? Did we have a pot of gold somewhere? Was I 100% Irish, too?

What was so special about being 100% Irish?

There was definitely something special about this to my grandmother. Although her parents did not come from Ireland, she was certain that her grandparents – maternal and paternal – did.

She kept a pot of shamrocks in her yard and frequently told the story of how they came from a real, Irish, shamrock plant in Ireland. Someone (I’m sure she told me who, but for the life of me, I can’t remember) hand-carried this shamrock cutting to America and gave pieces of it to various members of her family. She was so proud that her 100% Irish shamrocks were thriving under her care.

My grandmother was never able to tell me why it was so important to her to have this connection with her Irish heritage. For some reason, being 100% Irish was of great consequence to her, despite the fact that she knew so little about her ancestors. I was not able to understand this connection until I became interested in genealogy.

Doing the math (which I know is much more complicated than this), I can estimate that I’m about 26% Irish, give or take. My maternal grandmother – as you know – was 100% Irish, and my maternal grandfather was French-Canadian, making my mother approximately 50% Irish. My father’s family had been in America since before the Mayflower, in some cases, and although his mother’s Dunns may have hailed from Ireland, we have no proof, and it was a looooong time ago. So I gave myself an extra 1%, just in case.

But 26% (give or take) is still a pretty substantial amount. To say that I’m “one-quarter Irish” may not be as meaningful as my grandmother’s statement that she was 100% Irish, but it still matters, right?

Yes, it does. And I’ll tell you why it matters to me.

Many times on this blog, I’ve bemoaned the fact that I have very little information about my mother’s ancestors. Fathers abandoned their families, and no one spoke of them ever again. Personal papers were destroyed. Family photos were found in boxes and (non-archival) albums, decaying and unlabeled. Personal history books were left empty or incomplete.

Most of my maternal ancestors are strangers to me.

But this much I know: They were Irish.

And knowing this, it’s almost like I can reach back in time and touch them through their “Irishness,” like a golden thread connecting generations. We may be strangers, but we share a common connection to Erin… the Emerald Isle. Someday I hope to visit Ireland – to take my daughter to stand on the soil where her ancestors – her father’s and mine – once lived.

I may never know who they were, but at least I know where they came from.

And in some instances, I know why they came to America:

There were those who came over during the Great Potato Famine of the mid 1800’s. Others came in the 1890’s and found work on the railroads. Still others migrated to the Midwest and became successful farmers and land owners.

These are some of the classic stories that we learned in high school American History… stories that meant nothing to me when I was in high school, as I doodled in my notebook and daydreamed of boys.

But now I know. I know that my own, Irish, ancestors were part of some important moments in history.

I can imagine them coming to America on big steamships, probably cramped into steerage, joyous at beginning a new life, but at the same time sad to be leaving Ireland… their homeland.

I can imagine them trying to learn strange, new American customs, yet trying to preserve some of their own culture and heritage.

I can imagine the souvenirs and heirlooms they brought with them from their homeland, which have since been lost to time and carelessness.

And when I look at my grandmother’s pot of shamrocks – which now lives in my own backyard following her death – I can almost feel what it’s like to be 100% Irish.

Copyright © 2008 by Elizabeth O’Neal
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