Monday, November 23, 2009

The Cursed Luck of the Irish

The thing the critics don’t get about me is the fact that I’m Irish ~ Eugene O’Neill

When I went to Ireland in 1997 to visit my grandmother’s hometown, I learned more about myself there than I could have in 10 years of psycho-therapy. The majority of the Irish people I met reminded me of my own family. I saw the faces of my aunts, uncles, cousins, and siblings in their faces. And that’s not all. The Irish tend to be unpretentious, playful, tender-hearted, nostalgic, self-directed, and not overtly ambitious. They are often self-deflecting, something that can be endearing but it can also border on an inferiority complex. And I thought these traits were unique to my own family.

Although most Americans are aware of the devastation of Irish famine, our history books don’t tell the story of the Penal Laws that were imposed on the Irish by the English from the late 1600s to the nineteenth century. Under these laws, the Irish were denied their right to own land in their own country, to go school, to practice their religion, or speak in their own language. Poverty and oppression under foreign domination for centuries are likely to be contributing factors in the Irish trait of self-depreciation.

But before you get the idea that the Irish are sweet and meek; think again. They also have a history of being warriors, and they are hardly repressed (as much as the English and the Catholic Church tried) when it comes to self-expression, including that of a volatile or rebellious nature.

The Irish legacy is one of paradox. The luck of the Irish is super-imposed over Murphy’s Law (if something can go wrong it will), just as my passion to write and share my writing is super-imposed over my self-conscious public shyness.

It’s comforting to know that one’s faults are not solely our own doing, but can be traced to genetics, as well as to learned behavior passed down through generations. And if I can claim the wounds of my ancestors, I should also be able to claim their strengths, such as with their love of language. In an excerpt from a press release introducing my first collection of poetry, Muses Like Moonlight, I describe how my Irish heritage comes into play in my writing:

The Irish side of my family is rich with storytellers; some poems and a song have been published, and there are a few unpublished novels still floating around. I think the Irish influence in my poetry manifests as humor, my love of wordplay, and my inclinations towards short poems, about limerick in size.

I wasn’t completely aware of why I chose a picture of me in Ireland, wearing a shamrock pinned to my sweater with a waterfall behind me, as my blog photo. I knew it had something to do with wanting to take a break from writing political commentary and following the news compulsively (although being involved in politics is yet another Irish trait). I wanted to let my hair down, tell a good story, and hoped that the fairies and the gift of the blarney would come over me.

When I read “How the Irish Saved Civilization” years ago, I learned that the Irish were hired by monks to hand copy the classics and that they wrote little humorous ditties inside the margins of their work (usually about how boring their task was). I understood myself better after reading that, and I think the photo I chose for this blog is an acknowledgment of my ancestors and the tradition from which I write.

Originally posted on on April 13, 2005

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