You wouldn’t think it by looking at me, but I actually am Irish. My mother is part Irish, and her mother is descended from the Lynch clan of County Galway. Of course, my dark hair, dark eyes, and lack of height might scream Italy as opposed to Erin, but either way, the facts remain. I’ve always dug having Irish blood in me.
When I was young, my grandmother and I would go into the city for St. Patty’s Day and watch the parade, and eat at an Irish bar that served corned beef and cabbage along with Irish soda bread. These were, of course, long before my drinking would make St. Patty’s Day into a different kind of holiday. Either way, I remember all the stories and all the things I heard on those trips from her. There is a green line that the city paints down Fifth Avenue every year to mark the route of the parade; sometimes, on the nights before, the bastard Protestants would come and paint orange over the line (orange being the color of the North). We would visit St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and she would mention the old Catholic tradition of hanging the dead Cardinal’s hats from the towering ceiling, and they would fall when the Cardinal reached Heaven (ironically, none of them seem to fall, so I figure I’m screwed when I die). Once, way back in the history of New York, the Protestants tried to burn down the old St. Patrick’s Cathedral- an army of Irishmen protected it, with the bishop at the front, and threatened publicly to burn New York City to the ground if that Church was touched by a Protestant hand.
Being as I was a Civil War buff when I was a kid, my favorite story was about the Fighting 69th of New York. They were part of the famed "Irish Brigade", a brigade recruited from amongst all the Irish immigrants of New York City, and led onto the dreary fields of battle by an Irish nationalist named Thomas Meagher. They made the bravest charges of the war, charges that only an Irishmen would make. I stood on the fields at Antietam with my grandmother once, the same fields that these brave sons of Erin once charged valiantly, and were butchered valiantly, all in the name of freedom. The Fighting 69th is still a regiment in the US Army, and, though they are far from being all Irish now, they lead off the St. Patrick's Day Parade in New York City every year. They still march under the Green flag adorned only with a Harp and a Gaelic blessing, and are always referred to as "Mrs. Meagher's Own".
In reality, I'm no more Irish than I am Polish or Italian, but the influence is certainly strongest from the Irish side. I never knew my Polish side, and my Italian side, unlike most Italians, never really cared that they were Italian. They never had peppers hanging from the rearview mirror, and I didn't know that Columbus Day was actually considered an Italian holiday until I saw it on the Sopranos. I always liked being Italian, and I will always consider Rocky a hero of mine, but it's just not that ingrained in me.
It's kind of humorous, especially because I look so dark and my last name is certainly not Irish, so when folks see the Celtic cross that's tattooed on my back, it really throws them for a loop.
"So, wait, you're...Irish? What's your last name again? Wow! You look so Italian!"
I could see this, of course; eyes that are as dark as a Michelob bottle, and they only look darker because of the thick black eyebrows that hover over them (my girlfriend says they look like caterpillars. I told her I'd break up with her if she ever said it again). My hair is actually brown, but when I gel it, it looks black also. Throw in some sun-tanned forearms that one who's had a few too many whiskeys could call "olive" and a whole lot of hair, and BAM. They don't get more Italian looking. Picture any Italian boxer you've ever seen. Yea, I look like him.
Don't get me wrong, I'm a damn good looking fella, I just look ethnic, I guess you could say. But I've really no interest in Italian history, none at all. No, it's the Irish history, the Irish music, the Irish writers and poets and playrights, those are the ones that I dig. I go home drunk and try to read Yeats, and see if he makes any sense when I'm inebriated, being as he makes so little when I'm not. I'll read Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man, and marvel that the struggle that Stephen Dedalus has with Catholicism is the same struggle that the Stephen living in New Jersey has right now; proof that the more things change, the more they don't. I read Roddy Doyle's novels, and see characters that reflect me more than I thought they would. There will always be something mythical to me about the "terrible beauty" that was the Easter Rising of 1916, and the strength and honor that those men showed on that cold day. And there will always be something noble about the IRA, no matter how bad they get.
I try to explain to people that my "Irishness" is something that I carry more in my mind than anywhere else, kind of like the Cherokee carried the Cherokee Nation; there were no borders, but every one of them felt it in their heart, and in their soul. I didn't need my tattoo to explain to others that I'm Irish, maybe I needed to say it to myself. Those good looking Italian genes sure aren't going away, and neither is my Polish last name. Maybe it reaffirms to myself that I'm actually Irish, and that my great- great- great grandfather did come here during the Great Famine, whether or not I have his hallowed last name, or look like him. It's a comfort to know that my great-grandfather was in the trenches in World War I, fighting for his county, and sending letters back to the Irish section of Jersey City, even though he died long before I was born. When it comes down to it, my grandmother handed down all of this to me, the only one who cared about history enough to be impressed by the old letters and the roster sheets of the 14th Coastal Artillery. And maybe that all is worth more than a last name or some freckles.