On Actually Being Irish on St. Patrick’s Day

Editor’s Note: This has been updated from its original 2014 publishing date.

St. Paddy’s day— It’s the national day to get drunk on Guiness, wear “Kiss me I’m Irish” shirts and pinch those not wearing green. It’s a day of tacky shamrock pins, green glitter, and fake accents. Now don’t get me wrong—I don’t begrudge the general populace a day of fun but BEING Irish is about much more than drinking, singing and talking with a lilt. It’s about knowing and remembering the past. It’s telling that almost every Irish-American will be able to tell you about their family’s emigration to the United States. I’m no exception. The quest to understand my great-grandfather’s story has done quite a lot to shape who I am today. My family story is complicated. But it’s a part of who I am. So without further ado in true Irish fashion let me weave you a tale of hope, joy, sadness, and betrayal. It’s the story of my great-granddad, Michael McCarthy and the role he played in the history of the Republic of Ireland.

Michael was born on September 29, 1884 in Dublin. It was a time of change in Ireland. Like many colonial holdings, Irish heritage had long been suppressed under British Rule. But after The Great Famine it could no longer be contained. Michael surely would have been aware of the violence in the countryside over land rights. But his immediate exposure to Irish nationalism would have probably been through the rise in cultural awareness. Dublin was the site of both The Irish Literary Revival led by W.B. Yeats as well as the establishment of the Gaelic Athletic Association. Both worked to revive Irish cultural awareness.

In 1905, Michael emigrated to Philadelphia and in 1909 married Sarah Callaghan, a formerly indentured parlormaid. They moved to Pittsburgh where he worked as a fireman for the railway. There was a very strong presence of politically active Irish-Americans in Pittsburgh dating back to the 1860s and he remained connected with the cause of Home Rule. Back in Ireland the conflict was reaching a fevered pitch as sides began to be drawn. In 1913, the Unionists formed the Ulster Volunteer Force and the Irish nationalists quickly followed suit establishing the Irish Volunteers. While united by the desire for Home Rule, internally the volunteers were a combination of moderates who championed Irish culture and members of the radical Irish Republican Brotherhood. It was ultimately the military council of the IRB who planned the 1916 Easter Rising.

So why does this matter? Well this is where it gets complicated. By early 1916 Michael had three children—Patrick, Daniel and Mary—and a fourth on the way. But somehow he made it back to Dublin to participate in the Easter Rising. I have no records of his passage, It was during World War I and I can’t imagine it was easy to travel. Until recently this was simply a family legend, but then I came across the smoking gun, as it were. My great-granddad’s signature stating that he was part of the Boland Mills Garrison command by Éamon de Valera. I won’t got into the details of the Rising. It’s well documented in the film “Michael Collins” as well as an Irish Ballad called “The Foggy Dew.” (See them combined in a graphic YouTube video here). Suffice it to say that it was a bloodbath and since my own granddad wasn’t born until 1921, it’s sheer good luck that I exist.

mccarthy fam

The family legend says that my great granddad was then imprisoned with de Valera before somehow making it back to his family in Pittsburgh. One thing is near certain: de Valera was in the family home in June 1919 when Michael’s fifth child was born. Fittingly he was named Éamon de Valera McCarthy (the boy in the sailor suit standing on the far right; my granddad is bottom center).

The Irish Republic was established in January 1919 sparking the bloody Irish War of Independence and the rise of the brutal Irish Republican Army (IRA). The war ended in December 1921 with the signing of the Anglo-Irish treaty recognizing the Irish Free State but giving Northern Ireland the option of remaining a part of the United Kingdom. The IRA fractured into pro- and anti- treaty factions. The former merged with the Irish National Army while the latter embarked upon a campaign to overthrow both the Irish Free State and Northern Ireland through increasingly brutal tactics.

That was what broke Michael’s heart and is probably why he never talked about his participation in the Rising, nor the formation of the Irish Free State to his younger children, including my granddad. In 1925, Éamon de Valera became President of Ireland. I’m sure that Michael could have arranged a way to go back and visit but he never did. To my knowledge he never returned to Ireland after the Rising.

I never got to meet my great-granddad. If I had I would have asked him how he dealt mentally with the boundary between being a freedom fighter and a terrorist. Boland's MillsIt’s really the most difficult line to figure out and it remains so in the present. Look at the war in Syria. The Free Syria Army uses guerrilla tactics against the state. Are they freedom fighters or terrorists?

As I said, my family history is complicated. The Easter Rising set the stage for the partition and subsequent civil war. Most of the volunteers joined the IRA. Nevertheless, I choose to admire my great-granddad’s courage and dedication. He fought for what he believed in. I admire him even more for drawing the line when his cause became corrupted. Many didn’t do this. Irish-American support of the IRA is in large part why it remained so powerful and was able to carry out its bloodbath for the greater part of the twentieth century.

When I got married I chose to keep my maiden name mainly because I wanted to keep that legacy alive. I am a McCarthy and to me that means something. Just as it means something to me to be Irish. We’re a complicated people—just listen to our music! One minute you’ll hear a spirited jig that makes you want to jump up and dance around the room while the next you’ll hear a lament such as “The Foggy Dew.” The commercialization of “Irishness” focuses on the happy side, the one where we’re dancing jigs on the tables and swapping tall tales. But to truly be Irish is to embrace the complexity. You live in the moment, surrounded by friends and family even as you drink a toast to the departed.

My point here isn’t to moralize on the Pseudo-Irishness of the modern celebration of St. Paddy’s Day. There are other articles for that. I simply ask that today as you drink your green beer and exchange playful pinches, you remember that the Irish story is much deeper than the Lucky Charms leprechaun.

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