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An Irish Half-Breed’s St. Patrick’s Day Musings

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On St Patrick’s Day, the one question that goes through most people’s minds is, what’s it like to be Irish?

Alas, I can’t really say. After all, I’m an American and, like most Americans, I am a half-breed if not an all-out mongrel. My father’s side of the family was pure Irish, however, so I’m confident I am fifty percent Irish in terms of heritage. Having gone to Catholic school in the Boston area, it was as close to having a genuine Irish upbringing as you can have without being from Ireland. Most of the students were Irish (or half-Irish, like me) and the nuns and fathers were Irish or first-generation Irish-American.

I am also half (or nearly half) English. As a result, I was baptised a Protestant and the nuns never let me forget it. One day, at the age of 11, I got up to receive the Eucharist while at Mass — which our class attended every Friday afternoon — and one of my Irish teachers whispered fiercely to me, “Sit back down, Manning, you’re a Protestant, you cannot receive communion!”

Growing up, I always loved the dry but giddy banter that made up most British comedy. The English, it seemed to me at the time, had a playful outlook on life, whereas the Irish — and may St. Patrick himself forgive me for this — seemed dour. Some of the toughest kids in school were pure or nearly pure Irish and the teachers seemed to have no sense of humor. If you acted up, you got screamed at or got a ruler across the back of your hand. Then there was my own father, always the strict disciplinarian himself and someone I never dared to trifle with.

My English-American mother, on the other hand, was more tolerant and forgiving of my rare but not entirely non-existent rebellious streak. I’d always had a very dry sense of humor (still do, in fact) and I was convinced I inherited this from the English ancestors on my mom’s side of the family. They never gave a shit about being able to receive communion, believing it to be superfluous to Christian worship.

Most of all, though, I hated the IRA. I couldn’t believe people could kill innocents in the name of simply trying to achieve independence. The Irish weren’t fighting for their lives; they were just being greedy irredentists in my opinion. Like all terrorists everywhere they were cowards, and if there was one thing that made me ashamed to be from Boston, it was the generous amount of support the IRA commanded among the city’s considerable Irish population. I remember walking through the Charlestown Navy Yard one time and I saw a simple slogan scrawled across a wooden fence in large letters that announced, “IRA FOREVER.” I felt as if someone had stabbed me when I saw that. I was so nonplussed by it that I found myself fighting for breath.

You also saw a lot of bumper stickers in the Boston area that said, “26 + 6 = (small map of Ireland)”. As I grew older, I began to agree theoretically with this sentiment and the Irish Republicans. A united Ireland would be wonderful and I’d be very pleased to see it. It didn’t — and still doesn’t — seem right that Britain should own land on a colonial outpost that would otherwise be an island belonging exclusively to the Irish, but not at the cost of innocent lives and displaced residents who’ve only ever known Northern Ireland as their homeland and whose only crime is being British (or Irish) Protestant. We cannot change the events of the past that saw the British settle down permanently on the Irish island, and the IRA — and its supporters — were blind to think that they could.

Many years later, I have seen that the Irish have, in fact, got a sense of humor similar to that of the British. I have been to Ireland twice now and have been captivated by it. My father has often made me cry because I was laughing so hard at his jokes. Our next-door neighbors, the Mooneys, were always ready to entertain you with a story. In fact, when I think about the Mooneys, I can’t believe I missed what had long been so evident and staring me in the face: The Irish are a proud race – stubborn, yes, but also full of gregarious character.

It’s not about politics or the pig-headedness with which some people choose to run their lives. It’s about down-to-earth characters, all of whom have a funny, entertaining story to tell over a crackling fire and a pint of Guinness (or Murphy’s, if you please). It’s about a nation of people who are, in every sense of the word, survivors. Irish history has been written with a fair amount of blood and sorrow, but never has a group of people come out looking so strong and self-assured.

Just call me “Paddy” on this day. It’s not an insult. Happy St. Patrick’s Day.

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