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Erin Go Bragh

March 17, 2013

I’ve never eaten corned beef and cabbage. But in my family, St. Patrick’s Day was the holiday that trumped them all. Normal families get together at Christmas or Thanksgiving; decedents of the FitzGerald clan gathered on March 17. My grandmother, whose grandparents on both sides immigrated to Prince Edward Island from County Kerry, Ireland mid-century, after the famine but before Independence, bled green. She flew the flag of Ireland over her home in Allen Park, Michigan, for as long as I can remember. She would gather her Canadian sisters up during March and “the Aunties” would descend into the States for a long awaited visit. Aunt Fran has passed away already, but Aine, Bev, Connie, Deira, Rowena, Roberta, Clare and Mugsy were little pixies of great aunts that would appear on and off through out my life. Out of the nine children, only my grandmother, affectionately called Nan by her grandchildren and Auntie Clare had become Americans. Everyone else stayed in Canada.

St. Patrick’s Day was an oasis in a desert of Catholic Lenten life. No soda, no sugar, no meat on Fridays and generally nothing that tasted good was permissible in my mother’s household during Lent. The more miserable you were, the better your soul was supposed to look. Supposedly. But St. Patrick’s Day was a day to celebrate our heritage and indulge in everything that had been forbidden until Easter. If St. Patrick’s Day happened to fall on a Friday, we could always count on a special dispensation that would allow Catholics to break the rules and eat meat. From the time I can remember, I always looked forward to the celebration at Nan’s house. Some of the Aunties would visit, my aunts and uncles would show up (sometimes all 8 of them!) and the cousins and I would binge on cupcakes with green frosting and soda and dance around until we were sent to the basement to play with toys that had belonged to our parents. Nan would play her Irish records–the Clancy Brothers and more traditional tunes. I grew up knowing the words to “A Jug o’ Punch, “The Traveling Gypsy Rover” and “Finnegan’s Wake.” We would wear our green with pride and watch classics like “Darby O’Gill and the Little People” as we fell asleep. Ireland wasn’t something that we celebrated once a year–it was in our blood. From the Catholicism to the anti-English sentiment, Ireland was in us. We were the product of fighters– a people persecuted by the English for hundreds of years, a people who were forbidden to practice their religion openly so they celebrated Mass in the outdoors, a people who held on to their Gaelic language and roots even when the whole country was anglicized.

But as the years went on, Nan fought and beat cancer. She left her house in Allen Park, her home of 40+ years to live closer to my mother and my Aunt Moira, who could help care for her in her older age. St. Patrick’s Day parties were never the same. They used to be a gathering for all her kids in the old stomping grounds, and neighbors would pop by the reunion and join in on the jolly whiskey fueled revelry. But in Holly, it was different. She no longer prepared the massive amounts of deli trays, sweets and sides and even if people brought a dish to pass, it wasn’t the same. She had been a meticulous hostess, but this was the woman who insisted on ironing sheets and had a spotless house at all times. She still would take a shot of whiskey to celebrate but it was much subdued. Aunt Clare passed away a few years after Nan’s move, and the other Aunties, now in their ’70s and ’80s, were no longer up for the frequent trips to the States.

The family started to grow apart too. Nan’s nine children had scattered across the United States and developed small factions, which battled and created a less than peaceful environment. It wasn’t just them–even among my own sibling set of 11, we grew up, moved away, and some became estranged from our parents, who had divorced. But I hold those memories of my first 16 St. Patrick’s Days in my heart. In college, in a fit of panic brought on by a break up and a major I no longer wanted, I changed my major to English so I could apply to study in Dublin for a summer between my sophomore and junior years. I was accepted. I traveled all over Ireland with fellow Michigan State students and studied literature written in the towns we stayed in. From Dublin, to Sligo, to Galway to the Aran Islands, I buried myself in Irish poets and playwrights and fell in love with Yeats’ romanticism mixed with social commentary on the fight for Irish freedom from the English. I learned to avoid James Joyce, though I was inspired by his naming choice for his daughter (Lucia) and found myself with a Lucia less than 10 years later.

Yesterday I received something from an attorney’s office in Michigan regarding my grandmother’s will. I can’t help but think of the irony of receiving it the eve of St. Patrick’s Day. She passed away June 20, 2012. Losing her was akin to losing a parent to most people, but in my case, I am not close to my parents. I have yet to go back to the town where she passed away. Every time I even think about going to Michigan to visit family, I cry at the thought of being up there and not seeing her. Even though we left home almost six years ago, I called her every March 17th to wish her a happy St. Patrick’s Day. I think of the copy of the Proclamation of the Irish Republic 1916 that hung by her front door. I picture her sitting up straight on her sofa, dainty in her old age but swollen from medications, holding her cane and waiting for visitors and waiting to toast to her people on her favorite day of the year.

Erin Go Bragh. Ireland Forever. Moira FitzGerald Morgan Forever.

 

county kerry

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