Saint Patrick may have driven the snakes out of Ireland, but it was the potato famine drove out my family. Along with thousands of other starving people, they were lucky to somehow find a way to emigrate to America. Where, like almost every large wave of immigrants, they were not welcomed.
The lower working classes always oppose newcomers because their jobs are in jeopardy from someone willing to do more for possibly less. Those slightly higher on the economic scale were protective of their own ethnic group, and refused to hire or serve the newcomers.
I didn’t know much about my history when I was young. My father was in the Navy when I was born, so we moved every two or three years. When he was on sea duty, we would move back to my parents’ home town to live with one of their parents, who lived catty-corner to each other. I had two grandmothers, but only one grandfather.
I knew a lot about my mother’s family. I knew very little about my father’s. Much of what I thought I knew was untrue. My father told various stories about his dad. That he had been sent to the Georgia Penal Colony. That he was dead. The one thing I always picked up from the way he would answer those questions was that he did not like the man.
We moved back for the last time when I was a junior in high school. That was when I started to learn about my background. My mother told me that my grandfather was alive. She told me that he had visited me when I was first born, had kept track of me for many years, and she thought it was possible he would try to meet me.
I learned a lot during the next two years. There are still only sketchy second- and third-hand versions of why my father’s father was gone. He left when my dad was a toddler. He left his wife and two children after his first-born son died. My father never forgave the man who deserted him as a little boy.
Children don’t know other than what they see as they grow up. They have no idea whether they are rich or poor, they simply are. When they are little. When they grow older they figure things out. Unless they are very, very poor in which case they absolutely know.
On the proverbial wrong side of the tracks there was a slum named ‘John’s Town’ after my family. That was where many of my relatives had settled when they arrived from Ireland. My dad had related what seemed to be fun tales about walking along the railroad tracks, picking up coal. When I was 8, that seemed like a lark. When I was 16, the reality sunk in that the coal was for heat, and the fights he described over pieces of it were not boyhood sport, but life and death matters.
My father’s paternal grandmother lived in John’s Town. She was old and frail. It was very cold. My father and his cousins took turns leaving their homes and sleeping in the bed with her to keep her warm overnight. My father was 10 years old the morning he awoke to find his grandmother dead. She died of poverty. Of too little food and too little heat. My father understood his condition.
He understood and he worked hard to get as far from his beginnings as he could. It was a couple decades after his father had arrived in America, and Irish could now apply. My dad applied to the Navy. It was his passport to economic freedom.
Everywhere I lived, people celebrated St. Patrick’s Day. I loved it as a kid, and I love it as an adult. I love the songs and the dancing and general mayhem. I loved it before I knew I was Irish. I had known my mother’s family was German, and heard all those stories, but for many years I thought I was a Scot because my Aunt Annie had come from Scotland and had a thick accent. But, she married into our family. And, no one discussed my missing grandfather. I do not know any of my relatives from his side.
When my husband and I were in Scotland, I found my clan. Everyone knows the Highlanders and Lowlanders. The Johnstones lived in the Midlands. They were described as a ‘…much hated clan, who would fight for any side and had loyalty to none…’ That sounded pretty much like my siblings, my father, and I. We loved a fight. There was also a sign I enjoyed. ‘Those who can make it, stay in Scotland. Those who cannot, go to Ireland. And, those who cannot make it in Ireland, go to America.”
The ready to fight stayed with my family as it went to Ireland, and on to America. As I sing along with the bands on St. Patrick’s Day, I have often said a prayer of thanks that the famine brought my family here. Much as I am stricken at the things that happened to those who made the journey, I am grateful for the opportunity it gave me.
My grandfather never contacted me.