Monday, March 17, 2008


by Gina Sestak

Everybody's Irish on St. Patrick's Day, or so they say, but some of us are just a bit more Irish than others. Myself, I might be more Irish if a few things happened to prevail:

I might be perceived as Irish if I wasn't such a feminist, in which case I would have started using my ex-husband's name when we got married and continued using it after the divorce. His name is Terry McNeeley, you see. Definitely Irish.

To go to the other end of the spectrum, I might be Irish if we were a matrilineal society. [For those of you who didn't learn kinship terminology in Anthropology class, "matrilineal" just means tracing descent through the female line.] My mother's mother's mother was an Irish lass named Eleanor Donovan, which would make me Irish, matrilineally speaking.

Unfortunately, I know almost nothing about Eleanor Donovan. She died before I was born and my half-Irish grandmother, her daughter, didn't speak of her -- at least, not to me. One can only wonder what went on in that family, although I suspect that taking my grandmother out of school in the fourth grade to help at home, then sending her to another state to live with relatives and get a job when she was 14 years old might have led to some estrangement.

I know that Eleanor Donovan was in America when she married Mathew Bader, a man of German descent. She gave birth to eight children, one of whom died in childhood after being dropped by a baby sitter. At least, that's what I've been told. My mother's family is full of tales of children who who were fatally injured in one way or another, and I never knew for sure which were true and which were (I hope) fictional cautionary tales. In addition to the little boy who was dropped, there were:

- the boy who ate watermelon rinds he found on a neighbor's back porch and got a stomach ache and died.

- the boy who wore his new shoes, even though they rubbed his feet and caused blisters, which got infected and killed him.

- the girl who caught her dress on fire with a sparkler and ran screaming through the alleyway between the houses -- she might have lived, had the hospital not left her near an open window during a rainstorm, which led to her getting wet and contracting pneumonia. She died.

- the boy who was cursed and was so fragile as an infant that he had to be carried around on a pillow. He would have died if a Gypsy neighbor hadn't removed the curse. [I never found out who had cursed him in the first place, but my grandmother described her neighbor removing the curse by bathing the baby in clear water, which grew cloudy with something white.]

See what I mean?

But today is a day for celebration, not for telling strange family stories. Or is it? That, too, is Irish.

So lift a green brew to toast the saint, and share your comments about odd Auntie Maura or weird Uncle Sean. I look forward to reading them.


Annette said...

Up until a couple of years ago, I always thought I was part Irish. On my dad's side. I knew we were mostly German, but I thought we had a large portion of Irish in there, too. I really connected with my Irish roots. Loved Irish music and Irish dance. Longed to travel to Ireland someday just to see the place.

And then my geneologist nephew discovered that we were in fact ALL GERMAN. No Irish at all. I suffered a major identity crisis.

So for today at least, I can still hold onto what I THOUGHT was my heritage. Erin go bragh!

Anonymous said...

I'm afraid I'm half English, half Swedish. Perhaps the ancestors on my English side got their jollies repressing the Irish?

The tale about the blisters is DEFINITELY a cautionary tale, Gina. Nobody's died of blisters!

Joyce Tremel said...

Ah, but Tory, blisters can become infected, which can cause sepsis, which can cause death.

I'm Irish and German on my mother's side and Scottish and French on my father's, so that makes me half Celt. Just put on some Celtic music and give me a Guinness and I'm a happy girl. I'm going to drive the guys at work crazy today--I'm taking 5 CDs of Celtic music to work today. That'll keep them out of the station!

Anonymous said...

Joyce -
You like Guinness? I love it myself, but it is not for the faint of heart.
My ex- and I had a fool-proof method for getting it free: You sit down at the bar and order Guinness Stout, and someone is sure to notice that it looks interesting. You show them the tricks -- yes, a pen can stand up straight in a glass of Guinness stout, the head is that thick, and they decide to try one. They get a bottle of their own and taste it, then turn to you and say, "Would you like to finish this?" Works every time.

Anonymous said...

I don't have an Irish bone in my body, but my husband's Irish, pretty much through and through. Michael Patrick Gallagher, born on St. Patrick's day...! The family is in Donegal, and supposedly there's a cousin there who looks just like him. We haven't been to visit, but my father-in-law went a few years ago. One of these days, maybe on our way to visit my family...

Joyce Tremel said...

For those who have never tried it, Guinness is very smooth and creamy. Not strong at all. It actually has less calories than a regular old beer. If you're afraid to try it, order a Half and Half: half Guinness and half Harp. It's poured very carefully over a spoon so that it separates into two distinct halves--Harp on the bottom and Guinness on the top.

I also brought 2 loaves of Irish Soda bread to work today, so I hope no one expects these guys to chase them--that bread is heavy!

Anonymous said...

Gina, I'll happily raise a mug of green tea - I've got an Irish grandmother straight over from County Cork.

I too, heard the tales, and I think they made me a better writer. Who doesn't like a bit of the eerie?

Cheers, and Happy St. Patrick's Day to everyone!

Anonymous said...

I guess there weren't many stories in my family, but I'm glad, come to think of it.

Like you, Annette, I've felt this strong pull toward the Irish. The contra dances I go to and music played there are mostly Celtic. I once took an Irish guitar workshop at Augusta in W. Virginia and loved it. We did trace a James Laird on my father's side from Ireland in the 1800's, so I know where my dad gets his blarney from. Perhaps your Irish roots trace back to a former lifetime? (I'm reading "The Reincarnationist" by M.J. Rose now.)

Anonymous said...

I'm half Irish, half Scottish. Which means my family tree has been full of drunks as far back as anyone can figure. And a lot of depressed women, too. Cliches are often based in truth!

Anonymous said...

I'm Irish and German with a wee bit of English thrown in.

My grandmother knew somebody who died from every single thing I wasn't allowed to do when I was a little girl, including somebody who accidentally swallowed a toothpick and got it wedged in their throat and somebody who rashly jumped in the bathtub without first testing the water temperature and was scalded to death.

Okay, BUT, about the new shoes and blisters... When I was a senior in high school, I wore my brand new Candies sandals (not the slides we all wore back then, but a pair of cute little sandals with ankle straps) and the strap rubbed a little blister on the back of my heel. The next morning I woke up to go to school, and when my feet hit the floor, I just about shot through the roof of the house. Having been neglected, my poor tiny blister had indeed become infected, and not only that, but I had a big red streak running from my heel up to the back of my knee -- indicator of blood poisoning. My mother dragged me off to Dr. Molchaney, who made me lie flat on my back with my foot elevated for 3 whole days, which happened to include an entire weekend -- a fate worse than death when you are 17 and your boyfriend and all your friends are going to a big keg party and you're not.

So don't mess with blisters -- I really don't think they were kidding when they said they can kill you!