I didn’t know I was Irish

Here we are – Thursday morning – nestled in between two weekends dedicated to the celebration of Irish heritage. Last weekend I milled about amongst throngs of would-be leprechauns, their children and their Irish hounds.

We witnessed the marching of drums and fifs, step dancers and mounted police as the sound of bagpipes wafted through the streets of Mount Vernon.

cool dude with glasses
Who says St. Patty’s Day isn’t cool? (All photos by Nancy Murray)

After the parade I wandered out to southwest Baltimore to the B&O Railroad where the Irish immigrants found work and asylum from the oppression and famine of their homeland.

I toured the row houses of Lemmon Street which have been preserved in their 19th Century state to honor the steelworkers and their families who represented the Irish Community of the 1800’s.

I met the Grand Marshall.

The day was sunny and warm and so was my heart when I finally came home and did what is in my nature to do- I wrote a poem:

I didn’t know I was Irish when I came into this world, ruddy cheeked, bow legged and bawling.

I put an end to my mother’s 54 month streak of gestation and I began my journey on the caboose of the sibling train.  

We chugged along behind our parents in a single file line to school, to Church on Sundays, to the Dairy Queen. 

People commented on how alike we looked with our pale skin and our blue eyes and our freckles. The four boys wore their ties tucked into their pants. The two girls had shiny black shoes and tights.

But I didn’t know we were Irish.

At the time, my father was deep in the cups but soon would take the pledge to sober up- even though sobriety unleashed the anger that the drink subdued.

It's fun being green. Makes you want to dance.
It’s fun being green. Makes you want to dance.

I didn’t know I was Irish when I kicked his slipper from his foot again and again, risking his wrath in the childish hope of making him laugh.

I didn’t know I was Irish when I sat in the back of the station wagon listening to my Mother weave stories out of rocks on the road – stories that lasted the entire drive and could be picked up and tossed around any time – even 25 years later to blue eyed girls of my own.

When my Nana played the harmonica in the nursing home I didn’t know it was because she was Irish.

I didn’t know I was Irish when I was afraid of a long walk in the dark and I faced that fear with a song that I made up and sang  out loud until I found my way home.

When I took to wandering in fields scratching out odes and sonnets and searching the clouds for the perfect words I had no idea that this was common characteristic of my people.

I went to the Parades and I wore the green. I drank and I danced but I didn’t really know that I was Irish.

I picked up a book by Leon Uris. In Trinity I found familiar faces drawn in words both lyrical and profound.

I learned a history as significant to me as my own.

I didn’t know before then that I was part of a clan.

Bring out your dog.
Bring out your dog.

 Phantom memories of card games and laughter came through the pages and I knew that these people had been my people for ages.  

I told my father that I would go to Ireland.  He cleared his throat. He whispered that I could buy my ticket with the meager inheritance he was about to leave me.

I held his hand and fed him peaches despite what the doctors said.

And despite the scars that ran up and down my memories of him, my heart went out to him in his time of need. I sent him off with a blessing to calm his fears.

I didn’t know my forgiveness was the result of generations of Irish before me -people who were practiced at struggling and prevailing with their tender hearts intact.

The flight was long and since I had never been on a plane before I was filled with anxiety. I told stories to anyone who would listen. I joked.

The laughter turned the fear into a wisp of smoke.

 I didn’t know that in County Cork the Thorpe’s and the story tellers were one in the same. Thorpe is my maiden name – my father’s name.

I walked into the pub and I sat on the stool in the center. It was crowded for a mid-day during the week.

 “Are you from America?”

Be Irish for the day. Why not?
Be Irish for the day. Why not?

The bartender’s accent was thick as Guinness but I had been in the emerald Isle for a month and had grown quite used to it.

“I am.” I answered. “I’ve come to drink a jar for my Father who passed away two months ago.  His people came from this place” I said, “and so I came to this place to send him home. “

The bartender let tears well up before offering to buy me that jar. Then he offered to buy a jar for every soul in the house and announced to them what I had come to do.

Every glass in the house was raised. “TO YOUR FA!” They all shouted in unison. Then one rosy cheeked baritone began to sing the Irish classic, Danny Boy.  I couldn’t help but cry at the beauty of it. When the others joined in I let out a laugh so heartfelt and sincere that it turned my tears into joyous ones. I joined in the song.

We sang and told stories all night long. It was the happiest sad night of my life.

There is other blood in my veins but from that day on, in the deepest part of my heart, I knew I was Irish.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day.