When we first published the magazine back in 1985, I wasn’t entirely comfortable with our slogan “Mórtas Cine,” which translates from the Irish as “Pride in one’s heritage.”
As children we were warned about “pride” and its place at the top of the list of the Seven Deadly Sins.
“Pride goes before a fall,” my mother would caution.
Growing up in Ireland, surrounded by other Irish, one didn’t necessarily think about pride in one’s heritage.
And Irish history, as it was taught in school, didn’t exactly infuse one with pride – it scared the hell out of me. There was always “another martyr for old Ireland, another murder for the crown,” as the song goes. Every small victory was followed by a big defeat, betrayals of treaties negotiated, mass starvation and emigration.
Pride fell in with those other idioms of Irish life: knowing your place, not standing out in a crowd. And history showed that those who stuck their neck out usually had their head lobbed off. I don’t know if we all suffered from malignant shame, that residue of colonialism that Dr. Garrett O’Connor writes about in this issue, but certainly there was a fear of drawing attention to oneself or trying anything out of the ordinary.
America, then, was a revelation. Its sheer size a liberation. The anonymity that came with living outside the confines of one’s community was refreshing. I remember someone asking me what I really wanted to do. It was the first time in my life that anyone had asked that question.“I’d like to be an actress,” I replied, expecting to be shot down. Instead I heard, “I think you’d be a great actress.”
This can-do attitude was something new for me to consider, but even more startling was the pride that the American Irish exhibited in their heritage. It was chest thumping, bagpipes at top of the parade, shout it from the rooftops loudly and proudly. And “Kiss me, I’m Irish.”
I didn’t get it at first but as I learned more of the grand story of the Irish in America, from pre-Revolution to modern times, I became enthralled. It was a much more hopeful story than the history back home – for every knock-down there was an upswing, there were pioneers, and Irish war heroes, and movie stars, politicians, and businessmen, who for all their success were still proud to be of Irish stock.
I began to identify with those immigrants who went before me, and to seek out their stories. When I was lacking in courage, I
channeled Mother Jones, that firebrand labor leader and angel of the mining camps. And I began to see my Irish heritage through a different lens and appreciate the part that Irish Americans had played in preserving the culture.
At university in California, I read James Joyce’s Dubliners, and as the only Irish-born person in the class, I took questions, but the Irish-American students knew far more than I did about Joyce. It was an Irish American, John Quinn, who had argued the case for the publication of Ulysses in the United States, I discovered.
In the correspondence of Joyce, W.B. Yeats, Lady Gregory and John Millington Synge, Quinn’s name constantly pops up. He was behind the Irish literary renaissance both as an advisor and a financial backer. He also provided financial support for Douglas Hyde, founder of the Gaelic League.
Quinn is just one of many who helped preserve the language, literature and culture of Ireland in this country. The old Irish tunes were preserved in large part through the efforts of Francis O’Neill, a Chicago police chief. O’Neill, born in Cork in 1849, left home at age 16, bringing his love of Irish music with him. A proficient flute player, he set about collecting tunes with his friend and fellow officer James O’Neill who was able to write music and transcribe the tunes that Francis played for him.
And so, over the years, as I came to a better understanding of the Irish in America, I began to think of Mórtas Cine not so much as pride in race or heritage but pride in my people.
There are so many Irish Americans I am proud to be associated with in one way or another. There’s Chuck Feeney, who has funded educational programs in Ireland and is now funding medical research on a global level. Donald Keough, who funded the Irish studies program at Notre Dame. John Lahey, who is building an Irish Famine Museum on the campus of Quinnipiac University. Bill Flynn and Tom Moran who helped out in the Peace Process and others.
I am proud of the Irish lineage at the Ford Motor Company, and the participation of William Ford, Jr., as Keynote Speaker at our Business 100 lunch. As I write this, Ford executives are meeting with President Obama to discuss the Way Forward plan the company has initiated that will provide 12,000 new jobs for Americans in the next three years.
Over lunch, Bill Ford talked to me of his love of Irish music. And it seems to me that music is the main link across the generations, and the ocean, between Irish and Irish American. It has a transcendent quality that links us up to our ancient past and our home place. We have a wonderful interview with Martin Hayes by Tara Dougherty in this issue, in which he discusses the cross-pollination of the music, Irish and American, and how the one enriches the other.
I do hope that you get to experience Martin Hayes and The Gloaming, as I did on a recent evening in New York. The group of Irish-born and American musicians touched my heart and made me very glad to be Irish, glad that this music is part of my culture. As I listened to the haunting songs of old being sung in Irish, I was sad that the language is lost to many, but I am grateful that so much of the essence of Irish culture has survived.
It was a cold night in New York City but I was full of warmth, and pride in my people and culture.