Family histories can be complex even if a family is not particularly diverse.

One of my sisters has spend decades delving into our family history. Recently, she has recruited a second sister to work on expressing that history in a way where that the rest of us (and future generations) can understand it all.

I read a post today that clears something up for me on a related subject. Is is called History is a Memory. Tradition is alive.  It was written by Ryan Scheel. It is a serious piece of writing and quite good.

As much as I love history, I have hungered for a better understanding of my family traditions. The work people do to track down their family history can also shine a light on traditions. As Scheel writes, history is a memory; tradition (on the other hand) is alive.

Much of my background is Irish. I think of it as Irish-American, because you never know how much is authentically Irish and how much was adjusted to life in the States.  My great grandmother born in Ireland would send my 8-year old father down to the first floor of their building in Chicago where there was a tavern. He would go down with a bucket and change, and buy granny her evening beer. It became a tradition you might say. I know that would not be allowed now, but was it a tradition from Ireland? Or were buckets for horses. (An uncle of mine from the old country uses to describe grilled burgers as “sooty” burgers.)

Interested in what goes on at an authentic Irish bar, I was reading an Irish book on taverns a few years ago. The author disclosed that at the saloon in his quaint little Irish town, Dean Martin was on the jukebox and that was what the patrons listened to most of the time. Huh?

I can remember talking to one of my cousin’s about the term “shanty Irish.” I thought it was a term for the poor Irish from Ireland–like some of my family that lived modestly. Then there is the term, “lace curtain Irish,” that describes the higher class Irish who might be able to afford lace curtains for their windows. But my cousin who had worked in construction with Irish tradesmen, said the Irish don’t use “shanty Irish,” that’s an American term. The Irish are a bit more blunt, they call their poor Irish, “pig-sh@#” Irish. I followed up with some research to get to the bottom of things and I believe he was right. So bottom line is we were  “pig-sh@#” Irish in Ireland. My dad seemed to prefer shanty for us here in the states–at least in my childhood. Now by current American youth standards, some of us might be called “privileged.” Pig-sh@# one minute, privileged the next. I wouldn’t mind being privileged if that was really the case.

More Confusion

I remember another time I happened to comment on something I saw on an Irish chat-space. There was a discussion of changes in Ireland. I mentioned that although an outsider, I hoped the Irish would keep their deep faith. I don’t think I said anything controversial, but boy did I get some nasty responses. Who was I to comment on something Irish and I had lived all my life in the US? One lady said if I came over there sometime she would introduce me to her relatives they would “take care of me.” I signed off on Irish websites after that and crossed my trip to Ireland off my bucket list. (In truth the money is not there anyway.)

Another time after my fictional memoir, The Brown and White, came out, I signed up for a trade show of sorts for authors, both Irish American and Irish. An Irish author who had written a book on “the famine” was located next to my “booth.” I wondered a little about how a book on the famine could be timely, but I kept my mouth shut. I had seen many books on the famine over the years. But this fellow had done his research (please note that I am not disputing that). I heard him explain to those passing his station that his book was the only one written from a Catholic perspective. I don’t remember exactly what he said about the other books on the famine, but I believe he was quite critical of them. After a few minutes next to me, he was obviously upset at being next to an American who had written something light and could not be compared to his “magnus opus.”  He complained to management and he was led to another spot a floor below where I am sure he sold five or six copies of his book over the day.  I think I sold eight that day.

Anyway, I can appreciate the differences between history and tradition. Living in the United States, most every family becomes more varied with each generation. We can find certain historical documents like census and birth records, but tradition is harder to come by although my sisters are giving it their best shot.

Of course it occurs to all of us that traditions can be recovered in part by one interview or alternatively, much can be lost when a key relative dies. My Aunt Mary was a wonderful resource for Irish traditions and superstitions. My father had experienced many Irish Catholic religious traditions and customs. Unfortunately, they have both been gone for 35 years. I was not a great listener in my youth, but my sisters are working hard at collecting good information for all of us to share.

God love all the work these blessed women are doing for the family. It can’t be easy.

Speaking of Irish tradition, I remember my uncles love to drink in a local “Irish” bar on the southside of Chicago. Their mother, my grannie, was quite Irish like her mother before her. I assume they were exposed to Irish songs from her records? And when the band warmed up and played the old Irish tunes, the Norris boys did their best in the tradition of the great Irish tenors. Unfortunately for the rest of tavern crowd, the Norrises have always been short on musical talent. Still, it was an honest attempt at traditional song and that can’t be all bad, can it?