Bucks County Herald

Kathryn Finegan Clark: By the Way

A thread winding back to ancestors

The lakes and green hills of Killarney.

So, tomorrow is St.Patrick’s Day. Having been born a Finegan, I will celebrate in some green way, while still rejoicing that the flag I wave is red, white and blue.

I also probably will phone or text our children (grown and living in other states) and remind them to wear something green, and they will scoff politely at my quaint reminder. Faced with the same request, my husband will nod calmly and wear whatever color he wants. At least they are polite – and they are thoroughly American, as am I.

But I grew up in blue collar Bristol which was an ethnic town on steroids and it mattered in my long ago youth whether your family background was Irish or Italian or Polish or Czech – but at the same time it didn’t matter – not to us children anyway.

It didn’t separate us. It didn’t stop us from being friends, going to one another’s birthday parties, playing on the same sports teams or, even better, kissing across cultures. What it did was make our lives richer, our understanding of others broader and deeper.

My family wasn’t the “ould sod” kind of Irish always longing for the Emerald Isle. My father’s mother, who was born in Ireland and emigrated to America, at her parents’ urging, as a teenager with a younger sister in tow, never wanted to retrace her steps.

She had seen the promise of a new land, answered its call and actually declined a trip to Ireland in her later years. What was here was good, she said. She left the bad across the ocean.

A McArdle, she married into the Finegans, who had settled in New Jersey years before the Great Potato Famine of 1845-1852. She lived until 102, and until her dying day never forgave the British for their harsh treatment of her kinsmen.

My mother’s mother was born here but her parents, who bought a farm in Bensalem, were Irish immigrants. I never knew the great-grandparents, but my maternal grandmother somehow lost her Irishness and was as Yankee as they come. She had assimilated quickly and had married a Gorman, once O’Gorman.

My father, a jolly sort of man and much loved in the community, kind of liked being Irish. My mother did not, constantly reinforcing her message of “We’re American, not Irish.”

But she did on St. Patrick’s Day each year, in a bow to her ancestors, produce a wonderful steaming hot corned beef and cabbage. Once a year was enough for her. She could do a wicked brogue, though, but it took some serious coaxing to get that to happen.

So. I grew up American with a mix of ethnic friends. When I was in college, I collected more from farther fields – Austria, Lebanon, France, Nepal, and later a woman whose ancestors came from the Ivory Coast and another whose great-grandparents had been enslaved in Virginia. This was not a deliberate collection in any way, just a meeting of minds, common interests, a reaching across cultures. And that made my life as an American even richer.

So now I am a Clark and I don’t have to hear remarks about being Irish when I meet someone new, but how do I explain my love for the poetry of William Butler Yeats, the plays of Eugene O’Neill, the fiery wit of Oscar Wilde?

Or, indeed, Irish music? I love it and it has a soul-stirring, often tearful effect on me – a certain emotion evoked by nothing else in this world. The Irish, above all, know how to be sad and they know how to pull that from you.

So what is all this? It didn’t come from my childhood. I’ve never been to Ireland although I’ve seen its green fields from the window of a jet. Is this in my DNA? Is it cultural memory – a thread winding back to ancestral eyes and ears? Why do I insist on using my maiden name on my written work?

These are, of course, rhetorical questions – something else the Irish are good at. My father claimed the Irish were the only people he knew who generally answer a question with a question – often the pugnacious “What’s it to ya?”

And do I believe in leprechauns and the crock of gold the wee people guard? Ah, that’s something I can answer.

But should I be telling you I’m not entirely sure?




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