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Exploring One’s Irish Side on St. Patty’s Day

Exploring One’s Irish Side on St. Patty’s Day
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By Don Portolese

While many claim to have some Irish roots around St. Patrick’s Day, it may simply be because they’re looking for an excuse to get absolutely slaughtered on March 17th.  Many of these people would say anything just so they didn’t feel ridiculous for getting inebriated in the wee hours of the day or vomiting in the middle of the St. Patty’s Day Parade.

While some have a surname, freckles and red hair to prove their Irish ancestry, there are others of us who were of mixed race. I’m speaking of that volatile cocktail: Irish and Italian. At the risk of raising the ire of the full-blooded Irishmen (and lasses), there is some evidence that that very combination may very well trace itself back to St. Patrick himself. (More on that later.)

Despite my surname and Italian features, I am also of Irish descent. My mother was Irish and my father Italian. While many have a hard time believing me, I do have some proof. I have a few freckles on my right buttock, a few red hairs in my beard and a strong penchant for drink. However, I prefer wine to whiskey and prefer pasta to corn beef and cabbage.

In the derogatory terminology assigned to Italians and Irish around the turn of the 20th Century, my father was a guinea and my mother was a mick, which makes me somewhat of a gim-mick. It’s incredible how common that combination was back in the 40s and 50s. Both Italians and Irish shared the same religion and they came to the United States about the same time.  They were both the victims of racism for being poor and Catholic.

As they generally lived in the same neighborhoods and went to the same schools, the children of Irish and Italian immigrants spent a good deal of time together. The Italian children learned English, so there was no longer a language barrier to keep these two groups separate. As a result this combination grew to be one of the most common interethnic unions of all the immigrants that came to the United States.

The saying that opposites attract is quite apt when you consider how many Irish and Italians married back then. Their physical features are certainly different and their temperaments couldn’t be more diametrically opposed, although they both possess fiery tempers. They were also both hardworking and raised themselves out of poverty by their newly-donned American bootstraps.

The big influx of Italians and Irish came through Ellis Island around the beginning of the 20th Century and later settled in New York City. Together they worked to build New York into the city it is today, and that has helped to deepen the bond between the two. As large construction projects began in upstate New York and elsewhere, these ethnic groups, along with many others, moved to other parts of the country. Many, however, remained in the Northeast.

Upstate New York is where my father met my mother.  They had stories to tell from that time. Having so few doors open to them, many Irish and Italian ended up on both sides of the law to make a living. Being so close to the border of Canada, many of them worked or were complicit in smuggling alcohol across the Canadian border during Prohibition. And from my dual heritage emerges an anecdote that still tickles me to this day.

One of my Italian relatives came before my grandfather (an Irish Judge) on charges of bootlegging. As a good Irishman, my grandfather, as well as the rest of my hometown, were loyal customers of this man during Prohibition.  Aware of the tremendous irony of sentencing his own supplier to jail time and raising the ire of the rest of the town, my grandfather let him off with a warning. Sometime later this man appeared before my grandfather again for bootlegging. Although sterner than before, my grandfather let him off a second time with yet another warning. When this man landed for a third time in my grandfather’s courtroom on the same charges, my grandfather had no other choice but to act. Realizing that his position as a judge would be compromised if he let him off a third time, my grandfather imposed what many considered a heavy fine. When the man objected to the amount he had to pay, my grandfather dryly said, “Listen, I don’t complain about your prices; don’t complain about mine.”

These types of stories abound from that period. It was but one of many ways the Irish and Italians interacted with one another.  Whether they liked it or not, they were bound by history and hardship. However, more importantly they were bound by the same sense of family, a hard work ethic and a desire to get ahead in their adoptive country. My parents were a product of this new heritage.

They married in 1954. My father was the first to marry a woman that wasn’t Italian in his family. My mother was the first (and only) to marry an Italian. While some still clung steadfast to their ethnic origins back then, the Irish and Italians were the first and most prolific at breaking down those barriers.  They were the first of the 20th Century wave that made America the melting pot that it is today. For many that union was quite volatile as the two groups reconciled the more extreme aspects of their ethnicities. However, their children have assimilated these differences quite well.

I personally feel proud of both of my ethnicities. I appreciate both good food and good drink, and, given enough of both, I will certainly burst into song. I have a quick wit and a passion for the written word. There does lurk a dark stormy sea of Italian emotion under the surface, but my Irish reserve keeps that in check (most of the time). I firmly believe that these two different ways of taking the world complement each other perfectly. They have helped me to navigate the ebb and flow of this crazy world better than others.

Based on some controversial research, I may historically be in good company. I may even be able to say that I share a similar heritage with St. Patrick himself. Many dispute whether he was Roman or Irish. The Romans had conquered most of the British Isles during his time and this adds to the validity of his Roman ancestry. Maewyn Succat was the original name of St. Patrick. The name doesn’t smack of O’Malley or Maloney. While many say that Succat was actually part of his first name, the names of his parents give us more of an indication that our dear Irish forefather was of Italian or mixed descent. His father was Calpurnius and his mother Conchessa. Once again, not your typical Irish names.

No matter who’s right in that debate, there is a little bit of me on either side that shares his heritage. Whether he was or not, is not what’s important. It’s the fact that this combination has had a profoundly positive effect on the United States.   I would be proud either way for the Irish and Italians have contributed significantly to my native country and my sense of self. I am proud to be both, but on St. Patrick’s Day, I let my Irish side shine through.


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