(First posted on St. Patrick’s Day 2010.)
Today, as on every Saint Patrick’s Day, I’ll don the only green shirt I own (a New York Jets jersey – hey, they used to have a quarterback named O’Brien), put on some music by the Chieftains, maybe watch The Quiet Man if Turner Classics is showing it, and pour myself a couple pints of Guinness to toast my Irish heritage. At least, what I know about it. Which isn’t much.
I do know that both of my grandmothers were directly descended from Ireland. John Howe, my great-grandfather on my mother’s side, came over from Ireland with his family at age four during the Potato Famine. (Reminding me of the old joke: How could the Irish starve? They live on an island, surrounded by water filled with fish.) They settled in my current hometown of Ossining, NY, where John opened a successful grocery store and in 1885 fathered my grandmother, Mary Howe Jennings Fritts.
My paternal grandmother, Molly Flanagan, arrived at Ellis Island on October 23, 1916 at age 18, after leaving her County Roscommon home and setting sail from Liverpool, leaving her parents and her sole sibling behind. If she traveled with anyone, I’m unaware of it. She too settled in Ossining, and four years later, she married my grandfather Irving Brown, and three years later gave birth to my father, also named Irving. (Good Irish name, Irving.)
Beyond that, my ancestry gets a little hazy. My maternal grandfather was adopted – a serious roadblock to genealogical research – and although I’ve traced my paternal grandfather back a couple of generations in upstate New York, the online databases are of limited help when your last name is Brown, and I’ve spent many an hour on wild-goose chases.
Even my Irish history, pre-immigration, contains a lot of gaps. I have no idea which Irish county John Howe’s family left behind. I have two completely different maiden names for my great-grandmother. In the section of the cemetery where John Howe and his family are buried, there are other graves with unknown Irish names (in-laws, perhaps?), as well as those of children who died in infancy (nieces and nephews?) When my grandmother died, we found among her papers two curious documents, both from 1881, four years before she was born. One concerned a lawsuit filed by her father against a man named Charles Seitz; the other was, mysteriously, Charles Seitz’s divorce decree. I have no idea who Charles Seitz was. I suspect that Seitz’s ex-wife became my great-grandmother, but so far, I’ve been unable to prove it.
Molly’s ancestry is even hazier. The only information I have about her family is a 1966 letter that her niece sent after Molly died. Last year, I believed that I had tracked down an address for the niece’s daughter and sent her a letter; so far, I have not received a reply.
It makes me sorry that I didn’t probe for all this information when my ancestors were still alive. But as a young man, I wouldn’t have been interested. Whenever relatives came over on a holiday, I hid in my room as much as possible, as teenagers are wont to do. Family history was something to shun, not embrace. My blue-collar Irish Catholic background was different from those of my WASPy and Jewish school friends, and my young conformist self wanted to stress how we were the same, not how we were different.
As I have aged, though, and seen my own face turning into my father’s, and seen genetic characteristics recurring in my own children, I’ve realized that your ancestry is a crucial part of your identity. In fact, we are all the same in that we are all different.
We are descended from people who came to America from somewhere else. Though we describe ourselves in terms that emphasize that descent – Irish-American, Italian-American, African-American – our heritages get mixed over the generations as we marry those of different backgrounds. Eventually, we morph from distinct breeds into mutts. My wife’s ancestors, for example, came from 19th century Sweden; my brothers married a Southern belle and a woman who’s a mixture of Italian and Romanian; my older daughter married a Dominican. I’ve come to take extensive pride in my increasingly messy, mixed-up ancestry, because I recognize it as truly American. However, like many Americans, my knowledge about my ancestry only goes back two or three generations, and this ignorance about my heritage makes me feel incomplete.
In the PBS series Faces of America, host Henry Louis Gates Jr. traced the ancestry of twelve celebrities and what he found was often intriguing. Gates discovered that he was related to the half-Jamaican writer Malcolm Gladwell – through white ancestors. Stephen Colbert, whose DNA defined him as 100% Caucasian, was related to the African-American poetess Elizabeth Alexander, who was in turn directly descended from Charlemagne.
For all I know, I could be descended from some king or great explorer, but I may never know. At least I know I’m heavily Irish, right? Well, maybe not. Last year, I received, from my county’s Department of Records, a copy of Molly Flanagan’s marriage certificate from 1920, and what I read startled me. In the section about her parents, her father is listed as having been born in England, and her mother as having been born in the U.S.A. Is it possible that I’ve been exaggerating my Irish heritage all these years?
That’s a question to be addressed another night. Bartender, another round of Guinness, on me.