Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Irish in America, Part I

My family came to this country from Ireland. I’m fifth generation. All named John Greenan and each the eldest son. My son is the sixth in the line. So we always have celebrated St. Patrick’s Day. Recently I’ve been thinking about what that day and our Irish heritage means, or should mean, to our family.

When the first John Greenan came to this country in the 1880s, according to the family legend he was one of six children and left Ireland for America in his teens. Somehow, the story goes, he managed to skip Ellis Island and take ship up the Hudson River where he entered the United States without bothering with any formalities (my wife who is Hispanic and whose family held land grants in Texas from the King of Spain in the 1600s, likes to joke that the only illegal immigrant in our family comes from the Irish side of it).

The first John Greenan here in America was illiterate and doesn’t seem to have had any other family here. So there are no letters back to the old country, no known relatives and only the thin string of family anecdotes to make any connection to Ireland whatsoever—a string made even less dependable by another family tradition: never letting the truth stand in the way of improving a story. For one hundred years, nobody in my family returned to Ireland. Somewhere along the way, nobody remembers, the family left the Roman Catholic Church. Family members who have tried to trace our genealogy haven’t been able to connect the first John Greenan in America to any specific place in Ireland.
This story isn’t unusual in American. Most Americans don’t have connections to their immigrant ancestors. This disconnection with our roots seems to leave a hole that many of us feel a need to fill. So yesterday, I cooked a banquet of traditional Irish food to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. All food like mother never made and never knew.

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