It’s been said that everybody in America is a little bit Irish on St. Patrick’s Day.
Is your name Rajeev Motwani and were you born in Philly? Are you Shelley Tyszkiewicz from Cleveland? Doesn’t matter. St. Patrick’s Day is the one day we’re all encouraged to drink Guinness and eat corned beef and cabbage like it’s an important part of the American narrative.
Everybody wants to be Irish on St. Patrick’s day, including my maternal grandfather, Lou Weiss. There isn’t a drop of Irish blood in him, but he had my grandmother convinced that he had Irish forefathers.
My grandfather told my Gramma stories of a rich uncle named “Seamus” in County Cork — a decent man who was a patron saint of the arts. Seamus lavished people with attention and gifts. And he spoke with a thick Irish brogue, of course.
Lou Weiss was about as Irish as a McDonald’s Shamrock Shake. For some reason, my grandmother never questioned his integrity or challenged him on his ancestry.
I asked her, “Are you on drugs? His name was Lou Weiss. That’s the opposite of Irish. Why did you believe him?”
She told me, “He believed it.”
I said, “Please. He did not believe he was Irish.”
She said, “Laur, he fancied himself a poet.”
She meant that in a literal way, and in that light, maybe his fake Irish ancestry makes a little sense.
People use genealogy as a tool to create a narrative about themselves. If you’re Dominican, you cook plantains a certain way and may see that as part of your cultural heritage. If you are Polish, you celebrate Christmas Eve with a specific set of traditions and are very proud of that ritual.
So part of me understands why my grandfather would embrace a Gatsby-like notion of life and reinvent his story. In his mind, he was a great Irish poet trapped in the body of a working-class American on the northwest side of Chicago.
Except Lou Weiss was no poet. He was a husband, a father to four kids and a truck driver. He was also a man with a string of girlfriends. He left my grandmother after more than two decades of marriage and married a teenager. Then he stopped speaking to his children for about a decade.
(Wait, that sounds Irish.)
I think about the story of Lou Weiss, and I’m struck by how his behaviors — and not his DNA — left an emotional crater in my family that exists to this day. I feel his presence (or maybe it’s his monumental absence) every time I go home to Chicago, spend time with my mom and her sisters, or even visit my grandmother’s grave.
In that way, my grandfather’s fake Irish heritage is less Gatsby and more William Faulker, who once wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
While I have sympathy for people like my grandfather who fall short of their dreams, which is quintessentially Irish, I struggle with the real-world manifestation of poetic dreams run amok. So while some people are eating green donuts and nomming on chocolate leprechaun coins, I’ll be celebrating St. Patrick’s Day in solidarity with my dead grandmother by not being even a little bit Irish.
(Wait, now I sound Irish. Well, as Irish as Rajeev Motwani and Shelley Tyszkiewicz.)
Well, if I’m going to be fake-Irish like my grandfather, I might as well leave my cynicism at the door and have a green donut. My Gramma would want that for me.
Corned beef is very important to the Irish-American narrative. Beef production in Ireland was a large factor in the potato famines. Exporting preserved beef (aka corned) was a profitable product. Rich landowners started switching more & more farmland to cow pastures to make more money.
Bad harvests combined with less farmland equals famine. Famine drives immigration. Ironically, irish-americans that lived in the cities did not have access to fresh meat but they could get corned beef
I tried to be Irish when I lived in Chicago, by partying on Rush Street. It always ended with me cussing out some drunk guy who assumed I was a I prostitute and me, drunk on green beer, having to defend my honor by challenging said guy to a street brawl. I think I felt most Irish while reading Angela’s Ashes. The scene where the kids crack up and refuse to eat the holiday pig’s head reminds me of my childhood. We never had a pig’s head, but I’m sure my mother struggled to put holiday on the table more than once. I visited Dublin once, and had a blast. The people were kind and friendly and I felt Irish.