When we were in grad school, Suzanne and I used to talk about how hard it was to be Irish. You might have thought that we would obsess more about the difficulty of going to grad school in our 30s while looking after small children. But no, we were obsessed with the Irish question. Our grandparents and great grandparents were also obsessed with the Irish question – that is they were Irish and they found it difficult to get work. We were more bothered by the fact that being Irish we simply looked too wholesome to ever find ourselves on the back of a Vespa in Rome, our arms wrapped around a dashing Italian à la Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday. No one would ever take this particular bucket list item of ours seriously. We didn’t look the type. We might as well give it up now.
Suzanne is a striking example of the “Black Irish”: fair skin, black hair and intense blue eyes. I, on the other hand, lean to the more common Irish look: pale skin with hair that tends toward red (sometimes more so than others) and green eyes. We had both noticed growing up that no matter what we did or what we wore, we couldn’t shake that Irish wholesome look, and we had always felt that this is what had had limited our opportunities (see Roman Holiday above) – not the fact that we lived in the back woods of New England.
Our time would have been better spent discussing the neuro-cognitive therapy strategies we would need once launched as speech pathologists, or barring that, what was on sale at the grocery store. Instead, we endlessly speculated what it was about Irish genes that, even just a few of them (Suzanne is half Irish and I am only a quarter), can override all the other useful ones. We counted as useful those Italian, French or Spanish genes, which impart that stylish, sophisticated air of sprezzataura, or, if one isn’t too particular, turn one into a slinky minx.
It’s funny how that pinnacle of ambition for a 17 year old (slinky minx-dom) could remain a faded regret for a seemingly well-adjusted, if incurably wholesome, 37 year old.
Why Irish genes are so powerful remains a puzzle, but additional years have revised my feelings on that wholesome look. I am no end delighted that my daughter and granddaughters (with even less Irish in them than me) show that those Irish genes have incredible staying power.
Which leads into the second story. Twelve or fifteen years ago we were staying in an hotel in London. My daughter went downstairs to get a newspaper and on the way back up shared the lift with a very proper immaculately coifed, suited and gloved British lady of the old school. This lady thanked my daughter for holding the elevator and the daughter replied with a smile and some small pleasantry. The lady then asked where my daughter was from.
When she heard “the U.S.,” the lady said (more than a little emphatically): “No you’re not. You speak too well to be an American. You look Irish, but you also speak too well to be Irish. I don’t know what you are.” And with that pronouncement, the lift came to a stop at her floor and she got off.
The daughter was momentarily stunned by this up close encounter with the autocratic aristocratic idea everyone has a place and should stay in it. However, by the time she got back to our room and related the story, she was laughing. And then we were all laughing. If being just one or the other was unthinkable, what would that woman have said had she become convinced of the truth: that my polite, well-spoken daughter was both American and Irish. Probably only Maggie Smith could do justice to that thought…
Happy Saint Patrick’s Day to all!