Why did you have such a great desire to trace your Irish roots?
—Paddy Sweeney, Old Colwyn, Conwy, Wales
Ah, Paddy, if I had known when I began the research for Suite Harmonic that, in working to piece together the family lines and to discover more about my ancestors I would find such lovely relatives as you and your siblings, I would say it was just for that! Of course, I didn’t know at all what I would find, but the desire was there anyway. There are probably many sources for it, John Given’s letters the most immediate one. I was curious to learn more about his stories and the family members who were part of them. A broader reason was probably the old history student in me who, long ago, working on a master’s paper, was stirred by setting the record right when I delved into original sources and made some very unexpected finds. I wanted the accuracy of actual knowledge to go with the bits and pieces of stories that had come down to me.
I suspect that if I’d had letters from one of my Welsh great grandfathers, I would have been exploring my Welsh roots rather than the Irish ones. But I think anyone with a mixed ethnic heritage is more apt to identify with one aspect of it and, in my family, I always grew up feeling Irish. John Given was my mother’s grandfather and, though he died long before she was born, she told me stories about him from the time I was a little girl. She was very proud of him, a pride I assume she got from her mother. It was important to her that he was well educated in Ireland and in the classical traditional. As a Protestant, I think she also took some pride in his resisting the priest who stood in the way of his marrying her grandmother and, somewhat surprisingly, I think my Catholic father did as well.
I received an Irish surname from my father, whose own family came from County Mayo in the years before the Potato Famine, and my father, even though his mother was English and Welsh, always seemed like a quintessential Irishman to me. He told a great story and had a great sense of humor. He took his religion more than seriously and had a lovely singing voice. As a boy, he could hold his own in a fight. He told of brawling with a fellow altar boy before Mass, going into serve Mass with him, and then resuming the fight on the sidewalk afterwards. He was besotted with babies and small children and dressed neatly and rather formally, always with a hat or cap. Though he had a Ph.D that meant he spent a good chunk of his life working inside prisons trying to rehabilitate inmates, he loved the outdoors and hard physical labor. I remember his cutting weeds with a scythe as though the rhythmic swing of it was a part of his DNA. The first time I went to Ireland, most of the older men I saw reminded me of him physically, thought I didn’t know if they were also men of charm, quick anger, and dark moods. He came from a large family, and his Irish grandfather—another veteran of the Civil War, who fought at Gettysburg in a Pennsylvania regiment—had so many children himself that when the neighbor kids crowded in for dinner, the grandfather didn’t know the difference.
For all these personal reasons, my Irish roots have exerted a strong pull on me since I was young. There always seemed to be a certain color and vitality and underlying puzzle about them. And there was the story of Ireland itself—Ireland, the feisty, unrelenting underdog. I’m sure I romanticized that story some in growing up, but I always identified far more with what seemed to me to be the spirited Irish ancestral side than what felt like the stricter English part or the essentially unknown Welsh. Growing up Catholic, I was also very aware of stories of religious persecution (and also the heavy layers of Catholic guilt), and that was one part of the Irish story for me. The terrible famine was another and the unequal politics that made it so brutal. I also knew how dangerous the ocean crossings were for the people who left Ireland in desperation and hope to come to America. Those stories seemed very, very real to me because I knew from the time I was a little girl that John Given’s uncle disappeared in New York after the family disembarked from their ship. I knew that my other Irish great grandfather was born the day after his parents’ ship docked in America, which meant that his mother had finished that perilous crossing nine months pregnant. The hardships were an indelible part of the story and I couldn’t really take my eyes away from them.
There are at least two other important parts of the Irish allure for me. I’ve always been very aware of what truly amazing writers have come from Ireland. Swift. Joyce. Yeats. Shaw. Wilde. O’Connor. Trevor. Heaney. There are many more, but writing in English, the language that had been forced on their country, these writers became absolute masters of it and used it as a means of revelation and, at times, as a sword. I think the literature from Irish writers has a remarkable intelligence and power. I suspect that comes in part from the country’s fraught history and, as Joyce underlines in “The Dead,” the unrelenting pull of its past. But it also comes in a strong way from the land itself, which is both beautiful and fragile, particularly the delicate ecosystem of the mountains and bogs where it truly is possible to walk skillfully over land that disappears under the feet or to be sucked into it and die. It is this land that is also the other part of what holds me about Ireland: its green beauty and the rough rocky coasts and the great metaphor that the bogs offer for Irish life—to navigate its perils with élan, or to be suffocated in defeat.