Growing up on the far South Side of Chicago, surrounded by a vast assortment of Irish names like O’Donnell, Murphy and Burke, and Irish faces of fair-complexion with freckles and sparkling blue eyes, I never felt very Irish. Although I had an Irish grandmother, I also had a Greek last name, a German mother and dark brown eyes. My somewhat olive skin didn’t go well with the Kelly Green Rugby shirts and Aran sweaters of Chicago St. Patrick’s Day celebrations. And for the most part, the Irish music I heard in my youth, which would move many Irish-Americans to tears, didn’t do a thing for me. In my opinion songs like “Danny Boy” and “When Irish Eyes are Smiling,” though fun to sing along with, were corny and dripping with sentiment that was not helped by the fake Irish accents with which they were often sung.
Then one day in the 1990′s, I opened a Sinéad O’Connor cd and everything changed. On track two of this pop/rock cd there was a song called, I am Stretched on Your Grave, which I later discovered was based upon an English translation of a 17th century Irish Gaelic poem. The track began with a drum rhythm and Sinéad’s haunting, Celtic voice and led unexpectedly to what I thought at the time was a taste of pure Irish fiddle and drum heaven! As I listened, I danced around an imaginary bonfire in my mind and plugged into a power in that music that felt ancient and tribal. This song opened the door for me to a type of Irish music I had never been exposed to before. My new passion led me to the Irish Folk Music section of my beloved Border’s Bookstore and resulted in an extensive collection of Irish Traditional Music cd’s. Over time I bought dozens of cd’s, many filled with ballads rendered in a language that spoke to me, even though I didn’t understand a word of it, and haunting melodies played with fiddles, whistles and the stirring beat of the Irish drum, the bodhran, a name I couldn’t pronounce at the time. As I drove my family crazy with this newfound musical passion, I slowly became connected through music to a land, a people and a culture that I was only slightly connected to by way of genetics.
The rest is history. This blog, my West Clare cottage, my Irish last name – my youngest son – the little Irishman with a name I couldn’t have pronounced even a year before his birth, all exist to some extent because of that one Sinéad O’Connor song and the countless bodhran, fiddle and tin whistle tunes and ballads that followed. I still can’t wear Kelly Green, and Aran Sweaters really do not suit me. But not only do I now feel Irish on St. Patrick’s Day, like the rest of the City of Chicago, I am also connected to Ireland in a way that goes far beyond genetics. And today my two older children, whom I once drove crazy with my Irish Music cd’s, have a bond to Ireland as well!
On February 28th, President Obama declared March, 2013 Irish-American Heritage Month. Perhaps his Moneygall, Ireland DNA is what drove him to do it. Or, his experience visiting that country where he only recently discovered his family connections. Or, maybe it was just good old-fashioned politics where it never hurts to nod to the millions of Americans with Irish blood coursing through their veins! I would say it was probably a combination of all the above. Whatever his reasons, I am sure that most Americans will be happy to heed his call this St. Patrick’s Day!
“… NOW, THEREFORE, I, BARACK OBAMA, President of the United States of America, by virtue of the authority vested in me by the Constitution and the laws of the United States, do hereby proclaim March 2013 as Irish-American Heritage Month. I call upon all Americans to observe this month with appropriate ceremonies, activities, and programs.”