Wednesday, March 17, 2010

What Makes Me Irish? Nature vs. Nurture.

I have red hair and freckles. I am social, outgoing and enjoy a bit of craic, which for the uninitiated means "fun," not crystallized cocaine. My ideal lunch would be a pint of Guinness and a bowl of my Aunt Bridie's creamy vegetable soup. I know my way around Dublin and have been fortunate enough to have visited Ireland a half dozen times. My father, Jeremiah McMenamin, was born in Co. Donegal, Ireland. All of these things certainly define me as Irish, however, when you factor in that I was raised exclusively by my German-born mother, why do I so strongly identify as being Irish?

My parents weren't married and I never had the chance to meet my father. When I was growing up, the name Jeremiah McMenamin was as exotic to me as Rumpelstiltskin. My mother claimed to no longer have any photos of him, so any middle-aged man with an Irish brogue was potentially him - or himself, as we Irish say. Although my family didn't travel far or frequently when I was a child, each time I found myself in a place with an unfamiliar telephone directory, I would look up "McMenamin" hoping to find my father and make a connection with that part of myself which was missing. As desperate and random as this technique may have been, it was ultimately successful, however, many years had to pass prior to my making contact with my father's family, years I spent learning to get to know myself.

At the age of 22, I found my father. Well, sort of. What I found during a trip to London, armed with my Dublin phonebook directory page, was my cousin, Conal McMenamin, who shared the distressing news, that my father had in fact passed away 5 years previously. Conal, however, did put me in touch with my Uncle Eamon who lived outside of Philadelphia. Within weeks, I was in a rental car driving to Broomall, PA to meet my first family member, beyond my mother and brother, ever. I can't adequately describe the emotions that were coursing through me as I walked to my Uncle's front door. I remember a sense of nervous excitement coupled with trepidation - what if they didn't accept me? Would this be where the story of my father began - or where it would finally end?

And which was it? Both. It was the beginning of my creating real connections with the people to whom I am linked to genetically forever. It was the end of my imaginary father - both the one I had created in my head and the one my mother inflicted upon me with her bitterly distorted memories. I learned about a man who loved his large family - and about an entire family happy to embrace me, the previously unknown daughter of their departed brother. I came to know my father's brothers who recognized me as their own before introductions had been made.

When I make my cup of tea and pour the cream into the cup first, I do this because it is the way my father always made his cup, something I couldn't have possibly known. There was an occasion, a family wedding, where I sat in my Uncle's kitchen surrounded by relatives. We were having a grand time, keeping our throats lubricated to facilitate the telling of stories. At one point, I said something immediately forgettable except for the silence it prompted. When I sheepishly asked if I had said something "wrong," my father's siblings, independent of one another, explained that the expression on my face and the tone in my voice were so reminiscent of my father that it literally took their breath away. Apparently, I am my father's daughter. And last year, when I took Liam to Ireland and we found ourselves having dinner with one of my father's sisters and her eldest son, I knew it wasn't coincidence that the date exactly marked 25 years since his death.

I identify as Irish because being Irish is proof that I am connected to a place and people that are both known and unknown. And being Irish confirmed for me that the quest for something outside of myself can ultimately lead to a place inside of myself.

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