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On St. Patrick’s Day I’m An American

March 17, 2016
Irish-headstone-American-Flag

Under my mother’s watchful eye, preparing her parents’ grave site for Memorial Day. (circa early 2000s)

When I was young, I’d wear green on St. Patrick’s Day. Sometimes I’d wear a button on my jacket declaring my Irish heritage. I was proud of being of Irish descent.

But now, the day doesn’t have as much meaning. The struggle of my ancestors means a great deal to me, but after all that they achieved, I am left with the gift of being fully American.

One strand of my maternal family came to this country in the 1600s, about 16 generations ago. In the late 1800s, my great-great-grandfather was the first Irish Catholic mayor in New England – in the then booming immigrant city of Lawrence, Massachusetts.

John Breen, first Irish Catholic mayer in New England (City of Lawrence, Massachusetts)

John Breen, first Irish Catholic mayor in New England (City of Lawrence, Massachusetts)

It’s hard to imagine that Lawrence still had a rim of country land around it. But these photos show the home of the mayor and the field across the street from his home. These photos show the progress of an American immigrant family given opportunity and being self-motivated.

My great-grandfather held the drop-kick record at Purdue for nearly 100 years.

Charles-Breen-Perdue-University-football-dropkick-record

Charles Breen, Purdue-University football, held dropkick record for nearly a century.

My grandfather was the managing editor of the Lawrence Eagle Tribune. When I was 22 years old, my own father was given the honor of being asked to be the Grand Marshall of the St. Patrick’s Day parade in Lawrence, a city he served with his surgical skill. I choose the word “served” because he thought of his profession as one of service to the people of his community, all people – regardless of their country of origin or the number of years they had spent rooting into their new home land.

My generation, in photos below in 1977 at the Hibernian Dinner Dance the year my father was Grand Marshall of the parade, enjoyed a good life because of the hard work and courage of our predecessors.

I am proud enough of my Irish heritage and family history to have placed the story of my book, The Setting of the Sun, in the city of Lawrence in an Irish Catholic family.

My blood is about 7/8 Irish. The remainder is a smattering of English, Dutch and Native American. But in my heart, I am fully American. Perhaps I feel strongly about this now that my parents are gone. And perhaps it was their personal history and patriotism that caused me to transition to not really celebrating St. Patrick’s Day.

Each of my parents served in WWII – my father in the Army, my mother in the Marines. Every year of my childhood, on Memorial Day, my mother would walk us, her children, the quarter of a mile to the passing parade. She’d instruct us to put our hand over our heart as each American flag passed. She’d talk to us about giving honor to “the boys” who lost their lives to keep our country free from tyranny.

My mother’s solemn disposition on Memorial Day had an impact on me. Looking back now, I believe that each year, I’d feel more and more American because of her influence.

At age 70, my mother went back to work. She worked for several years in the Immigrant City Archives in Lawrence. She loved the legacy her home city had left on the Merrimack Valley. She especially loved the mix of races and cultures, and the contribution of each to the American way of life.

My mother was a solid member of the GOP. I don’t believe she ever voted outside of her party. She followed politics with the same zeal that is associated with sports fans. She understood her civics and she could determine with a fair amount of accuracy, by following every move of the Senate and the House of Representatives, who might bid for the presidency and how he/she would be receive by both parties and the American people.

I think of her often as I watch the current presidential election. I believe she’d be in a dilemma. Her party has put forth a candidate whose bigotry and aggression is a threat to this country. It would bother her to hear his anti-immigration and immigrant bashing statements. She’d wonder how Donald Trump could lead a country whose military has already acknowledged that it will not follow his illegal commands regarding torture and the killing of civilians (family members of terrorists).

I am my mother’s daughter, and though we did not see eye to eye on all things, we loved each other dearly. Like her, I am proud of the courage it took for my ancestors to leave the home they loved and brave the seas to find a better life. I’m proud of what they achieved in their small way. This is the American story for every family in this country that is not Native American.

So, on St. Patrick’s Day, I thank my Irish ancestors for my American heritage. And I want this country to continue to allow the privilege of American heritage to any person fleeing oppression, violence, tyranny, starvation or lack of personal freedom and human rights.

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