Family Dynamics,  The Sacred Arts

Not as Irish as I Thought

I’m not as Irish as I thought. This has skewed my worldview a bit, and now I’m feeling culturally adrift; in the throes of an existential crisis, if I allow my flair for dramatics to take the spotlight for a moment. But I’m getting ahead of myself…

Being part-Irish has helped me situate myself in a world where culture has been wiped dry by chain restaurants and American flag-waving patriotism, with which I don’t identify because it’s so sterile. The only meaning I can extract from being American in this day and age is the value of capitalism and imperialism, and I’m not big on isms.

When I was too young to understand why, I found myself jealous of the few Jewish kids at school. In set aside class time, we studied their mysterious heritage that included dreidels and latkes and Anne Frank (I know how horrible that sounds – but these were the abstractions of a ten-year old from a white-washed public school education). Our family dyed Easter eggs and put up a Christmas tree, but it seemed so devoid of meaning. These empty traditions didn’t tie in at all with who we were and from whence we came, like the Jewish kids with their menorahs or the many Chicanos at school whose lives were full of rich tradition and two spoken languages. Those traditions help establish cultural identities, something I perceived as lacking in my young life.

My family is mostly Dutch on my father’s side of the family. Both great-grandfathers sailed over on steamships after World War I, but the only traces of that cultural legacy were a Dutch poem my Grandpa taught me and the Delft china my Grammy collected. We didn’t eat Dutch food (thankfully, it turns out – I’m not a fan of pickled herring), we didn’t hear stories of what it was like in the homeland. Our past was a blank slate that only seemed to start once the relatives stepped onto American soil. I don’t even know why they came here, actually. My third-generation was too far removed, I guess.

My mother’s side of the family, however, is the complete opposite – a Heinz 57 blend hailing from all corners of Western Europe, they have been here since probably before the Mayflower. A good chunk of this family, I always believed, came from Ireland, Germany and England.

Thus, the only time I felt like we vaguely had any heritage was on St. Patrick’s Day. My mother and grandmother would cook corned beef, cabbage, boiled potatoes and bake Irish soda bread. My grandmother would wear shamrock pins that invited strangers, “Kiss me, I’m Irish!” I knew all about the potato famine, even though my ancestors came to America long before that time, but I must admit, I didn’t know about the Troubles or the difference between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland (that came later). All I knew was that I belonged to something larger, which was what I craved.

In college, I further identified with the Irish once I learned about the Irish language in my British Lit class. I fell in love with the Irish poets, especially after reading Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill’s Why I Choose to Write in Irish, The Corpse That Sits Up and Talks BackIn this 1995 essay, she explains the appeal of a culturally saturated language that incorporates the “Otherworld” into daily existence. Irish, an emotionally sensitive, imaginative language truly reflects the culture from which it springs. No wonder I grasped onto it with both hands. My world was being eaten alive by “…the growth of an originally Anglo-American, but now a genuinely global, pop monoculture that reduces everything to the level of the most stupendous boredom,” as Ní Dhomhnaill describes. True that.

So for most of my adult life, I’ve believed that I’m mostly Irish and Dutch. When talking with my mom the other day though, I mentioned making Irish soda bread in honor of the holiday, and mom casually mentioned, “You know, we’re actually not that Irish. We’re probably more German. And a lot of the family we had thought was Irish was actually Scottish.”

This stunned me. I didn’t even know we had any Scottish heritage. “We aren’t? What about all those Querrys and Kerrs?” I asked.

“Kerr is actually a Scottish name,” mom pointed out. Way to expose my ignorance, mom.

I felt like I was back at square one; very mixed up and confused, like my heritage.

As I look around my office for some clues about who I am, I see my Jane Austen paraphernalia from grad school sitting on my desk hutch. My French and Italian language learning CDs are shoved in desk cubbies and my Pre-Raphaelite art prints adorn the walls. My Moroccan jewelry box sits on the dresser, my stacks of literary theory, anthologies and shelves of books hail from all corners of the globe. I see that the beauty of who I am is no longer in my family history, but the histories I’ve embraced on the way. I adopt these for my own, and I am the richer for it.

I still made soda bread, though. I will always be part Irish, even if mostly in my heart.


Linking up at Mod Mom Beyond Indiedom’s blog hop, because I Don’t Like Mondays.


  • Chris Plumb

    I grew up being told I was Irish and Norwegian and Jewish; and found out I’m more German and English than any of those other three. I seriously distrust anything based on oral tradition, when three generations can’t even seem to remember where we actually came from.

    But the good part about embracing being American, is that you can accept and incorporate any heritage you want to. I can celebrate the Chinese New Year, and eat Americanized Chinese food. Or drink green beer on St. Patty’s Day. I’m truly a hodgepodge of cultures, so I might as well enjoy the best of all cultures.

    • Natalie the Singingfool

      I know. I don’t even know what we are anymore, lol. Next thing you know, I’ll find out I’m part Vulcan or something. 😉
      And you know, you’re right; that’s the one thing I like about being American – you can adopt what you like from each culture, the best of the best.

  • winopants

    I find these days I identify as Californian. Whenever I leave for a while I notice it more strongly, from the amount of times I say “hella,” eat Mexican food in a given day, or walk out of a grocery store spending 50 bucks for a short list of things. Or the fact that I now have to sort not only recyclables from my garbage but all compostables. I love our weird hippy mismash of things here, how this non-culture has become something.
    I used to identify as Irish too, until I found out I was only 1/8 😛

    • Natalie the Singingfool

      Being Californian certainly has its perks, I agree. First of all: best Mexican food in the country. I also like the environmental movement here (plastic bags banned in my city), and I love the “hippy mismash” too. 🙂 Gimme some more tie-dye!

  • Rhea

    Hold on to the parts of your heritage that sing to you, no matter how small they are in percentages. We are all part of the human race, but by following the ethnic traditions that you most identify with, even if it is not “scientific”, you will add to the tapestry of the global experience in your own way. Thanks for linking to the Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill article, I needed that today. Have you ever seen this short film about the Irish language? It’s lovely.

    • Natalie the Singingfool

      You know, I’m only marginally French, but that part of my heritage always spoke the loudest to me, and to this day I love studying the language, literature and history. I guess you’re right – it “sang to me.” 🙂
      Isn’t that article so refreshing? To this day, it’s still one of my favorites on language and its relationship to art. I’ll watch the video you recommended over lunch today. Thank you!

  • Mod Mom Beyond IndieDom

    Aw, yeah. And everybody’s Irish on St. Patrick’s Day! Scottish is pretty cool too. Just don’t eat the haggis. I grew up accustomed to being part Irish, part German. But then, I’m adopted, so who knows? Personally, I like to think I’m Jewish and that my birth father is Bob Dylan. Sometimes we do embrace our own histories in our hearts. 😉

  • Brian Sorrell

    I also claim to be Irish, German, and English, but in the end, the only proof I have is last names and pale blue skin.

    But here’s the thing about identifying as American, and having it mean something more than capitalism and imperialism: we moved from the L.A. area to Auckland, New Zealand, and being away (13 months now) has really given me perspective on “American.” There actually are freedoms that we take for granted, such as naming our kids. The state has the power to *deny* a child’s name here. What? The list goes on, but that one just stood out in my head at the moment. It’s enough to make me want to wave a flag every now and again, and simply disavow the imperialist tendencies.

    Then again, identifying as Californian is probably the best bet, since California is the greatest place on Earth (state budget crisis be damned.)

    Anyway, new reader here. Great post. I’m digging your style.

    • Natalie the Singingfool

      No way! The ability to deny a name? Not even a funky name, like Spandex or something? Weirdsville. I’m sure there are probably other things I take for granted, too; the price I pay for a cynical nature. Despite the cynicism though, I still tear up at 9/11 footage and the like. Part of the American I can’t shake, I guess. 😉
      Thanks for stopping by!

  • Beduwen

    Great post. You are not alone in feeling confused about your ancestry. I just go with what I’ve been told but I doubt it’s 100% accurate. Great comments here, too!

  • Ericamos

    I’d really love to dig into my genealogy to get some answers. I was always told I was 50% Mexican and 50% German, but then my brother came to the realization that my paternal Grandma’s maiden name is totally English. In the end, I guess it really don’t matter, since, like you, there really aren’t any cultural traditions on the white side of my family. We’re basically just American, but I like winopants’s Californian identity. I’d rather go with that too! Apparently, my Mexican side was here in CA before it *was* CA, so I’m a Californian through and through! Yay hippies! Yay tamales! Yay perfect weather!

  • Courtney

    I love it! That’s exactly it – embracing other cultural heritages is just as wonderful as embracing your own. Appreciating other cultures for what they are and what they offer to the world is so important, and too often we are so caught up in our lives that we don’t see that.

    As for America, I really identify with the original America – a melting pot of people who wanted freedom. Now we’ve lost the ideals of freedom for television shows and a competition to see who can garner the most wealth. Regardless, every culture has something that can be celebrated. Great post!
    Courtney recently posted…heritageMy Profile

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