Is it the food, the beer, the music, the dance, the accent, the parades or the vocabulary that still connects people to their Irish heritage? Or is it instead nostalgia for the past and personal memories that associate us with the Emerald Isle? With all the time that has passed since my ancestors arrived in America, is my Irishness, and that of other Irish descendants in New Hampshire, quickly fading away?
Oh yes, I grew up eating so-called Irish food. But my first generation Irish-American grandmother had an English-Canadian mother, and an Irish father, so where did she learn her cooking skills and the recipes she used? Did her culinary creations originate in Ireland, or were they instead simple, northern New England fare?
The one truly traditional Irish meal I remember she made was an Irish lamb stew with dumplings. In fact having an annual meal of “Spring lamb” was something she insisted on. My grandmother drank tea rather than coffee. She loved eating “Spring greens” (dandelion greens) and later on in the season rhubarb–both foods that would have been available and commonly eaten during Ireland’s Great Famine.
My son and his wife made a trip to Ireland last month. He went there for business and combined it with sight-seeing tours. Their tales of adventure, and the photographs they emailed to me, brought back the memories of my own trip to Ireland several years ago. Where they focused on visiting the cities, I had spent most of my days exploring the Irish countryside, villages and castles.
I mused about my Irishness. Of course the inheritance of Irish DNA is undeniable, but how much “Irishness” do I feel and express today in my every day living? My local Irish history is well researched. My great- grandparents, Thomas & Mary (Lyons) Mannion/Manning, who settled in Manchester NH arrived in 1867. They left Caraunduff, Kilmeen in Galway County, Ireland with their eldest three children and had enough money to purchase a small rooming house on Lowell Street in Manchester NH. There they raised 8 more children, for a total of 11. Thomas was a sometimes fireman, probably for the mills, while his wife Mary ran the boarding house, mainly taking in Irish immigrants.
I have Irish Ryan 2nd great and great-grandparents too, who settled at first in Canada and Vermont, then later Manchester. They were from Ireland’s counties of Cork and Limerick, and arrived in America almost two decades before the Manning clan. Looking back it is evident that the first of my Irish ancestors arrived 168 years ago. They faced great prejudice here, so immediately they went about acting as Americans first, and Irish second. In a generation they had participated in an American war, given up their Gaelic language, and kept only very few of their customs.
So what Irishness did I retain? Growing up I had to wear the green on St. Patrick’s Day to please my grandmother first, then later my mother (who would even contact me from far away to ask if I had worn my green). Once my mother passed, the “wearing o’ the green” started to lose its luster.
To this day I use quite naturally the Irish words I learned from my 1st generation Irish-American grandmother–conundrum (mystery), galore (plenty), hooligan (troublemaker), kibosh (to finish, or put an end to something), shillelagh (wooden club or walking stick), slew (a great amount), smithereens (small fragments), and a jumper (sweater).
I attended Catholic church, and a Catholic grammar school. For 8 years my twin sister and I sang, danced or recited in Manchester’s annual parochial school event–the Saint Patrick’s Concert. My grandmother and mother would sing the Irish tunes, so we knew them by heart. For a few years my parents took the entire family to see the Saint Patrick’s Day parade on Elm Street in Manchester (that event continues to today– to be held on March 25th at 12 noon in 2018.)
I have more English DNA than Irish yet if someone asks me what my ancestry is, “Irish” is the response that I say first. What is the secret to my seemingly ingrained connection with the Irish culture and people?
Something my son said to me about his trip to Ireland helped me to understand about my robust connection with the Irish people. He had previously visited England, and said he felt and saw a subtle difference in Ireland. In Ireland there was an added sociability–everyone he met was friendly, chatty, and interested in you–the visitor. I suppose you could say the Irish have an obvious conviviality.
The Irish long ago mastered the art of being friendly and lively. It was that spirit that I often felt when the Irish-American members of my family got together. Their easy smiles and raucous greetings, their boisterous way of communicating, their unashamed hugging and kissing, and chatter. These elements were missing from my staid English side of the family. I inherited so much of these Irish social graces that I deferred kissing the Blarney stone when I visited Ireland. I already had the gift of gab.
As long as we continue to embrace that convivial side of ourselves, then the Irish in us is not lost. It is that obvious enjoyment of life, even with its occasional melancholy, that the non-Irish would love to emulate. So this year on Saint Patrick’s day, if you want to be Irish, or at least act like one, you can of course wear the traditional green. Even more importantly, just smile a little more, greet a stranger as if they were your family, talk someone’s ear off, treat the visit of a friend as if it was a jubilee, and give someone a warm bear hug. As for me, I’m just a story-teller of Irish descent, but I know where the endowment comes from.
100 Years Ago: New Hampshire’s Irish Celebration of 1917
A New Hampshire Éirinn go Brách: Addie (Ryan) Manning (1879-1968)
New Hampshire’s Favorite Irish Son: Somersworth’s General John Sullivan (1740-1795)
Manchester NH’s Civil War Medal of Honor Recipient: Lieut. Colonel John F. Coughlin (1837-1912)