Remembering a Reluctant Irishman

My grandfather was a reluctant Irishman. Depending on your opinions of writers like James Joyce or F. Scott Fitzgerald, that puts him in good company. The Irish are known for many things: a deeply pious brand of Catholicism, an abiding love of alcohol, stubbornly curly/wavy hair, an even more stubborn (and melancholic) disposition, and adroit skills with spoken word, prose, and verse. My grandfather—a fourth-generation American—had all these traits in spades, as well as a good Irish name to boot: John Benedict Fitzpatrick, though he preferred “Jack.” Yet Jack was profoundly conflicted about his Irish heritage—indeed, even a little ashamed of it—in a manner that seemed strange, especially in a post-Kennedy era when being Irish (and Catholic) was becoming synonymous with being a “full-blooded American.” Over the years, however, I’ve come to respect my grandfather’s ambivalence about his Irishness, as well as his unparalleled pride in being American.

Born in 1920s Queens, Jack grew up in a largely homogenous Irish-American neighborhood. He attended both parochial and public schools (PS 109 in Brooklyn) until his parents’ Depression-era poverty led him to drop out at age 14 and find a job to support the family. He delivered watches across New York City and once encountered the great Babe Ruth in an elevator—he had “some dame” on his arm and was smoking a fat cigar, my grandfather recounted to me. When the Second World War began, Jack promptly signed up with the Coast Guard, and spent most of the war in Norfolk, Virginia, where he fell in love not only with the Old Dominion, but with another fourth-generation Irish American, my grandmother. After the war, they married and started a family, and he began working in the dental supply business. Eventually he founded his own successful company in Springfield, Virginia. He sold it in the 1980s for enough money to retire on. God bless America.

With a “rags to riches” story like that, one similar to millions of Irish-Catholic Americans who moved from poverty or near-poverty to success and stability, why would my grandfather be so conflicted about his Irish heritage? In part, I think, precisely because this is a uniquely American story. My grandfather viewed himself as in some respects overcoming the weaknesses and struggles of Irish culture and identity. The more that he identified with being first an American, the less he felt the need to stress his Irish heritage, even if it was indelibly bound to him.

The Irish proclivity towards self-pity and defeatism was one trait my grandfather eschewed. Jack found frustrating such descriptions as the one famously offered by William Butler Yeats: “Being Irish, he had an abiding sense of tragedy, which sustained him through temporary periods of joy.” Of course, the Irish have plenty of legitimate tragedy to mourn: Oliver Cromwell’s brutal conquest of Ireland reduced the island’s population by at least 15 percent; the Great Famine (and British negligence in addressing it) resulted in a million deaths and another million emigrants; WASP-dominated America discriminated against the Irish and their Catholic faith for centuries. Yet some Irish, rather than seeking to overcome this sorrowful history, wallowed in martyr complexes and depression. There’s a reason so many films about the Emerald Isle are unbearably melancholic. Jack understood the imperative of remembering this tortured story, and indeed had his own, having grown up in poverty and witnessed quintessentially Irish despair and alcoholism in his family. But he didn’t want it to define his life. His was an era where any intelligent, enterprising man could transcend humble origins and make his mark, and he aimed to achieve as much as he could—professionally, intellectually, and artistically. So he did.

Jack was also ambivalent about Irish culture, especially as a niche market developed in America around all things Gaelic. He found especially silly those Irish Americans obnoxiously prideful of their ancestral country’s literature, cuisine, or music. All of these things had their merits, he would acknowledge—J.M. Synge, Jameson, and the Chieftains are all worthy of adulation. But let’s be honest—the best Irish writers represent only a small chunk of the West’s best literary tradition. Irish food and drink can be plenty hearty and tasty but are dwarfed by other cultures’ culinary contributions. And Irish music gets pretty annoying the day after St. Patrick’s Day. As one who loves Joyce, bangers and mash, and the bodhran, I’m grateful that my grandfather’s skepticism towards Irish culture was somewhat blunted when he read Thomas Cahill’s How the Irish Saved Civilization, which reminded him of the Gael’s significant contributions to the West. Moreover, the Irish contribution to global Christianity cannot be easily overstated. For such a small land, the Emerald Isle has certainly punched above its weight. Yet when one ranks Irish civilization among others in the Western tradition (e.g. French, Italian, German, and even, yes, I daresay, English), a little cynicism towards Irish pride is appropriate.

Such skepticism is especially relevant when considering Irish Americans who have placed allegiance to their ancestral land over their adoptive American home. Some foolishly supported the Irish Republican Army (IRA) after Irish independence. Others promoted organizations that served as agents of the IRA. My grandfather would have none of this. He had sympathy for the suffering of Irish Catholics during “The Troubles,” but he had no interest in supporting terrorists or pushing for U.S. intervention, be it Ireland or anywhere else. Indeed, unlike many internationalist Irish-American politicians, he was an adamant isolationist who believed America should well honor John Quincy Adams’ warning to not go abroad “in search of monsters to destroy.” (He would be quite proud to know I write for a magazine founded by Pat Buchanan!) As far as Jack was concerned, once someone became an American, his first allegiance must be to America and its interests.

This is perhaps the most salient lesson I learned from my grandfather. Though he could never escape his Irish heritage—exemplified, among other things, by his wit, his temper, and his tumultuous relationship with the Catholic Church—he, as an American, placed his Gaelic blood in the background of his identity. Even the idea of being called an “Irish American,” struck him as odd. If we allow these ethnic or racial monikers to obscure a fully American identity, we keep the most important, if ambitious, goals of the American experiment at arm’s length. We risk segregating ourselves into tribes that fuel the dead ends of identity politics, exemplified in such events as the egregiously unprofessional, erroneous coverage of the Covington Catholic scandal.

To have pride in one’s heritage is one thing. To make it the preeminent marker of one’s identity—or worse, a political weapon to demonize one’s opponents—undermines the demands of a patriotism for all peoples. Thus this Saint Paddy’s, I will remember and honor my grandfather and his indelible Irish character. I will gladly toast him and my fellow Fenians with a Guinness. Yet I will also remember that the best memorial for Jack Benedict Fitzpatrick is to be a man defined by virtue, faith, and patriotism. Those are traits any American, Irish or not, should aspire to.

Casey Chalk is a student at the Notre Dame Graduate School of Theology at Christendom College. He covers religion and other issues for TAC.

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