I was recently asked to explain my stance regarding being Irish-Catholic in America as a culture as opposed to a religion. It is a hard thing to explain, and as I sit to write this I find it is a very gray area. As with many religions such as Judaism, Islam, and certain Christian sects, the Irish culture is so tied up with the Catholic religion it can be hard to discern the two, but I will try. What I would really like to demonstrate to you is that because I was raised Irish-Catholic, I have had certain experiences and I have been taught certain things that someone not raised Irish-Catholic might have to have explained to them. The fact that I had those experiences and maintain those understandings means I fit into my subset of society; I fit into my culture.
I should explain that I am a product of a mixed religion marriage. My father was raised Southern Baptist, while my mother’s completely Irish ancestry was made clear by the last names of her parents, Callahan and Brennan. My parents met in college in southwest Missouri, and they built a house on a hundred acre farm next door to my paternal grandparents. The town we lived in was small and highly dominated by evangelical Protestants of many stripes. My father’s interest in religion began to wane after several incidences of prejudice with regards to my mother’s acceptance at his church. Because of this, my mother was in charge of the religious education duties when children came along. I attended Parish School of .Religion on Wednesday nights as a child. I did not have the private education that my mother’s side of the family took pride in because the local Catholic school was so small. My thinking differs largely from the Catholic Church’s in many areas, but a private education is something I still believe strongly in. I truly believe that a private education is better than a public one despite the fact that I (and my parents) work for the public school system. This is the reason I chose to attend a private college. Many Irish-Catholics will tell you they believe heavily in private education.
Growing up, I had experiences that other people I knew did not have. My family observed the typical Lenten restrictions on meat despite living on a cattle farm. I wore ashes on my forehead on Ash Wednesday and braided palm leaves to hang from my bedroom mirror on Palm Sunday. My Irish grandfather observed the fasting restriction before communion, and so when I visited them the breakfast after church was enormous. Weddings and funerals on one side of my family were considerably longer than on the other side. These events required standing, kneeling, sitting, the Ave Maria and Danny Boy sung, and perhaps a rosary prayed. There were events in my life that my Protestant relatives had little insight to: First Confession, First Communion, Confirmation. To this day I can relate tales of these events to any other Irish person I have met and they will nod sagely while telling a tale of their own. And yes, nuns truly will tie your hands behind your back if you are left handed.
These things tie heavily to Catholicism; that I acknowledge. However, as I stated they are experiences that may differ from yours, and I relate to the world and people around me through that lens. I understand jokes that you may not understand; I respect things that you may not. It doesn’t make either of us right or wrong. It simply means we have different mindsets, and we were taught certain things. That is a culture, not a religion. The following is a list of a few other things I have been taught along the way as an Irish-American, maybe you know some of them, maybe not. My family, my culture taught me them. Not a single one of them has to do with religion.
- · Bourbon is good, as is Scotch.
- · The Guinness family actually has a long history of being anti-Irish independence. Murphy’s is the beer of working class Irish in Ireland. Killian’s is made by Coors.
- · Corned beef and cabbage is not a very Irish dish.
- · If somone’s last name begins with “O’ ”, most likely you will get along with them.
- · I will probably always blush easily for men named Sean, Kevin, Michael, or some other equally Irish sounding name.
- · If you can’t marry an Irish guy, an Italian is generally favorable.
- · There is a BIG difference between being Scotch AND Irish and being Scotch-Irish. Know the difference, and avoid people who wear orange on St. Patrick’s Day.
- · U2 and Italian boys from Jersey make good rock music.
- · Cead Mil Failte means, “Ten Thousand Welcomes”.
- · Fairies live in the trees in the yard.
- · The meaning of the term “Irish wake”.
- · The meaning behind the term, “Little Christmas”.
- · The meaning behind the designs of Irish fishing sweaters.
- · Irish tartans are different than Scottish tartans. They go more by where you are from than by the name of your family.
- · There is a difference between a shamrock and a four leaf clover.
- · There is a difference between the Gaelic, Welsh, and Manx languages.
- · Poetry, drama, and public speaking run in my blood.
- · Eugene O’Neill and W.B. Yeats are gods. No one has actually finished Finnegan’s Wake. Frank Mc Court will make you laugh, cry, miss your mother, and long for a pint all in one page of a book. Maeve Binchy writes fun books about life in modern Ireland.
- · Jim Sheridan makes excellent movies.
- · The Kennedys are saints; you should revere them.
Tomorrow I will go to the Irish section of town and parade down a street called Tamm Avenue while wearing green. My curly hair and freckled face will fit right in with the group of kinfolk I will be walking with. My Irish eyes will smile, and I will drink a toast to my Irish ancestors. I may be celebrating on a holiday named after the patron saint of Ireland, but it will not be a religious celebration. It will be a celebration of people like me, whose forefathers came to America. They built the railroads, worked the shipyards, and became cops and firefighters, after being starved out of their own country. It is a tale of the sons and daughters of immigrants who came here and searched for those like them. We celebrate what they managed to make despite the odds. We celebrate what we have in common, and that is a culture, not a religion.