We may have grown up in the scorched desert of Arizona, but our mother made sure we five kids never forgot our Irish heritage. And it wasn’t a matter of simply wearing green on St. Patrick’s Day, either.
Our Catholic faith and Irish history were inseparable.
In the 1960s and ‘70s, our family lived one block from Our Lady of Perpetual Help Catholic Church in Scottsdale. All three of the priests who served there, including the pastor, the Rev. Eugene Maguire, hailed from Ireland. I think I was in middle school before I realized that not every clergyman spoke with an Irish brogue!
My mother impressed upon our young minds the fact that our ancestors emigrated from the Emerald Isle back in the 1840s during the ravages of the potato famine that swept over Ireland. More than a million starved to death and another million fled for their lives during those terrible years. Among those who landed in the U.S. was Owen Clarke, patriarch of our family, who came over with his eldest son.
Little by little, they scraped together enough money to send for the rest of the family. One of them was Owen’s son, Michael Clarke. At only 9 years of age, he left school to work in the coal mines of Pennsylvania alongside thousands of other “breaker boys” who labored with their bare hands in harsh conditions. It was dangerous work but it spelled survival.
Like any group of immigrants, hard work and education eventually paid off. The youngest of the clan, Stephen, was eventually ordained to the priesthood. A couple of generations later, my grandfather pursued higher learning and became a chemist. He never forgot from whence he came.
The fact that the Irish suffered intense persecution for the Catholic faith back home in Ireland, not to mention discrimination in America, was one of the recurring themes of my childhood. At age 8 or 9, I can remember standing before my Granddad, James Brehony Clarke, to recite the verse he’d made us memorize:
Ireland was Ireland when England was a pup;
And Ireland will be Ireland when England is grown up.
I had no idea what it meant then but vaguely realized it was poking fun at the Brits. Years later, I discovered the line dated from the 1916 Easter Uprising which eventually led to the establishment of the Irish Free State, today known as the Republic of Ireland. My parents and grandparents were able to travel there in later years and had cherished memories of those times.
When I say our family treasured its Celtic past, I’m not exaggerating. We grew up listening to the Irish Rovers and the Clancy Brothers music. My parents attended the St. Patrick’s Day party at church each year or held a party of their own. Later on, they even celebrated something they called halfway to St. Patrick’s Day in mid-September.
My older sister, the one upon whom Clarke was bestowed as a middle name, still holds a St. Patrick’s Day gathering each year that features live Irish music and a potato bar. (The tradition is on hold this year due to the pandemic.) Virginia became the matriarch of the family after our mother passed away in 2009.
I can remember sitting at my mom’s kitchen table sorting through paper work that spring. “Looks like you’re almost out of return address labels,” I told her. “Should we order more?” The shiny green shamrock labels were her trademark. “I won’t be needing them,” she said softly. Mom knew then — and wanted us to realize — that her earthly journey was nearly finished.
By then, she had already helped us then-grown children choose which portions of her delicate, Belleek Irish china we would inherit. My nephew, Michael Kevin, was to receive the shillelagh, a walking stick (or, handily, a weapon) fashioned from a tree root. Mike’s a former U.S. Army Ranger, so it seemed appropriate. Younger sister Patricia received the statute of her patron saint which now stands in her front yard.
In a nod to her beloved Irish history, Mom’s obituary invited mourners to wear green to her funeral services. The church that day was filled with friends and loved ones decked out in bright green shirts, dresses, skirts and blouses. I don’t imagine there’s ever been a funeral quite like that since.
Today our family includes members whose roots span the globe. We’re proud of who we are and honor not only our Irish past but also our Venezuelan, Korean and Italian roots, too. A recent DNA test revealed we’ve even got British blood flowing through our veins. (I wonder what Granddad would say about that!)
Yes, we’re “stronger together” as the saying goes, but every year on March 17, I remember that it’s a holy day of obligation in Ireland and I hasten to Mass. Afterward, I munch on a little Irish soda bread and think of all the loved ones who have gone before me and paved the way to this very moment in my life.
I may just come up with my own verse to impress upon the grandkids’ minds. Something about the ties that bind and a faith that never fades.