This post was written for the 5th Edition of the Carnival of Irish Heritage and Culture.
Starting at an early age, my family made sure I knew that my heritage was Irish. And one of the best ways to reinforce this in a child was to engage in the Irish tradition of storytelling and using Irish words or phrases.
If it weren't for the efforts of my great-grandmother, Therese McGinnis Austin, and her nieces Dorothy Austin Mulholland and Ethel McCrickert Hannan, my only images of the Irish would have been stereotypical. Many of these archaic symbols could be seen in movies and television shows:
- the Irish policeman with the Irish brogue;
- the Irish maid always wisecracking, also speaking with the Irish brogue;
- the poor, put-upon Irish mother with at least 10 children; and
- the perpetually inebriated Irish father who was "bone idle" and spent most of his time and the family's resources at the corner pub.
But these older women who helped raise me and had a big influence which countered those stereotypes, always made sure that their homes had "touchstones" or "markers" which I could hear, smell, see, or otherwise witness during my young years.
I remember the dish towel that Grandma Austin had which was imprinted with the all-too-familiar Irish Blessing:
May the road rise up to meet you.
May the wind always be at your back.
May the sun shine warm upon your face,
and rains fall soft upon your fields.
And until we meet again,
May God hold you in the palm of His hand.
And if I remember correctly, I could find the same prayer usually on a souvenir plate or a mug in the houses of other relatives that someone had brought back from a trip to Ireland.
What I thought of as tchotkes now I look back at as pleasant reminders of my heritage. The only relative I remember who actually made it to Ireland was my Aunt Ethel. I have some great photos of her at the Blarney Stone and in Dublin during a visit in the 1970s. My great-grandmother and my mother always said that Ireland was the one place they'd like to visit before they died.
Besides being regaled with stories of the Irish customs of their parents and grand-parents (what they ate, how they dressed, etc.) all my older relatives somehow possessed the ability to tell a good story. These days I don't so much remember the stories themselves, but usually who told them and how they were told.
As I've said in earlier posts, my family did not sit in front of the television very often, especially at my great-grandparents' house (except when Lawrence Welk was on - and family members would get up and dance in the living room!). After a meal, everyone sat in the living room and talked. You would think that after years of being together we'd all run out of things to talk about, but that was never the case. And if someone didn't have a new story, they'd start with an old tried and true one: "Remember the time that Father Casey woke up on the Church Hall floor . . ."
My cousin Ronald Mulholland had some of the best stories, and they were all "clean" since he was with the order of the Marist Brothers. All the same, the stories were always hilarious, with people laughing so hard they cried.
Now that I think of it, I have the same "gift of gab" as we used to call it. There are some stories of my family that I can tell over and over again and they always provoke a few laughs or some pleasant sighs - those sighs you utter when briefly you think back to those relatives who've passed on, and their stories, and their ways, and how much you enjoyed being there in that time and place.
As I get older, I do much more sighing as I conjure up memories of Grandma and my aunts, funny stories, Irish souvenirs, and how they made sure I never forgot who I was or where I came from.