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Fitting Into My Genes

Fitting Into My Genes
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Somewhere deep in my solidly Celtic psyche is a wee, furrowed man who leisurely walks with a shillelagh out in the bog, surveying the gently rolling green hills while smoking his clay pipe and stealing a swig of poteen as the dew settles on the heather and the sheep graze in the distance. That’s how I picture my great-grandfather John Patrick O’Leary, or The Boss as his family called him, living in the west of Ireland a century ago.

I never knew The Boss, but in a sense I do now–or, I should say, I know about him. He died in Tipperary in 1967, when I was 4 years old. I have a wedding picture of him and my great-grandmother, Fanny McDonnell, from 1906. The first time I saw it was about 15 years ago, while visiting my Aunt Helen’s house. The fading black-and-white photo showed The Boss, about 30 years old, and his bride of 19, flanked by her parents and witnesses in front of a building in a modest rural setting.  “That’s the creamery where your grandfather was born,” my aunt said. The creamery. Now I know why I had such a craving for cow’s milk.

I marveled at the composition of the photo. Why weren’t The Boss’s parents in it? If they were farmers, why were they dressed in exquisite clothes?  Who were these people so far removed from my life? I had the photo framed and from time to time would look at it, and the one thing that struck me was how much The Boss and I looked alike.

My father, Bill, was born in Queens, the son of Irish immigrants–Bill Sr., a bank security guard from County Clare, and Nellie, a domestic from County Tipperary–who emigrated to New York in 1930. Bill Sr.’s family was considered of a much higher social station than Nellie’s. They were not allowed to date each other in Ireland, so they decided to pursue their romance on a different shore. Bill worked as a security guard at Rockefeller Center, where he purportedly watched Mexican artist Diego Rivera paint his famous mural “Man at the Crossroads,” which Nelson Rockefeller had destroyed after Rivera refused to remove Lenin from the picture.

Not long ago I found a magnificent black-and-white photo, taken in 1957, of my father and grandfather standing in front of a Pan Am prop plane, minutes before boarding for their vacation to Ireland. Seeing the photo surprised me; my father never spoke of Ireland or his Irish heritage. And yet, he gave me and my two brothers, Liam and Brian, distinctly Celtic names, while his brothers and sisters gave their kids more modern, American names like Jennifer and Jackie.

In 2000, at age 63, my father died of a variety of ailments, all exacerbated by the zest with which he had embraced his Irish drinking heritage. Dad was cremated and his remains put in a large gray urn, which I keep at home. I was not close to my dad, but his death struck a nerve. After 9/11 and then my 40th birthday, I started thinking more and more about my heritage, my genetic dispositions, and my Irishness, which had been colored for years by emetic St. Patrick’s Day revelers and Lucky Charms commercials.

During a move a few years ago I rediscovered my great-grandparents’ wedding photo. I hung it over my desk and studied it again. The older I got, the more I looked like The Boss. What were my ancestors’ lives like? Why did they leave their farms and homes in Ireland to start over during the Great Depression? And did Irish women really say, after showering with Irish Spring, “Manly? Yes, but I like it too”?

I delved into Irish history and learned about the Cromwellian evictions, the popery laws, the Fenian uprisings, and the Irish civil war. Although I grew up in the 1960s and 1970s hearing my aunts and uncles talk about The Troubles in Northern Ireland, I didn’t understand the significance.

I studied the Irish language and read Joyce and Yeats and Behan. After tracing my tree back five generations, I deemed myself Irish enough to apply for Irish citizenship, should I ever decide to live in and work in the European Union. In January 2007, I received my Irish citizenship certificate. For the first time in my life I truly felt Irish.

My research to date has brought me far in many ways. It turns out I come from hardy Irish farming stock, going back hundreds of years. My great-great grandparents endured the Great Famine by running dairy farms and selling their goods to the British while managing to sustain themselves despite evictions. They not only survived, they prospered: my great-grandfather John Patrick O’Leary went to college and obtained his certification as creamery manager, which in early 20th century Ireland was something of a rarity. In his early 20s, as a qualified creamery manager, he was sent to various dairies throughout Ireland to make something of them, as dairy cooperatives became a driving force in the Irish economy. A creamery manager had to know not just how to make butter, but how to run complex machinery and create an efficient supply chain. And butter was not the only product The Boss churned out; over the course of 20 years he and Fanny managed to produce 17 children, 11 of whom survived to adulthood. The more I learn about The Boss, the more I identify with him. He was the oldest child. He liked to travel. He believed in lifelong learning. And he lived to be 91.

Maybe one day I will be the wee, furrowed man roaming the bog, reflecting on the ghosts of the past. Learning about my ancestry is a legacy I want to leave for future generations curious to know what came before them. Or, as James Joyce so efficiently put it: “I am tomorrow, or some future day, what I establish today. I am today what I established yesterday or some previous day.”


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