ST. PATRICK’S DAY MEMORIES
Commentary by Joyce Coronel
We may have grown up in the desert, thousands of miles from County Cavan, but my Irish-American mother never let us five kids forget our Emerald Isle heritage. Our ancestors, she told us, came to America to escape the misery of the potato famine, which plagued Ireland from 1845 to 1852 and led to the death of more than a million men, women and children.
Another million were forced to flee for their lives, including our esteemed ancestor, Owen Clarke.
And that’s how the Clarke family wound up in rural Pennsylvania, working in the coal mines.
At 9, Michael Clarke had to quit school and join the myriad young boys with blackened faces, who struggled to scratch a living out of the Earth to help feed his family.
As with most immigrants, education and hard work paid off. My paternal grandfather became a chemist, who worked for the paper mills but never forgot his roots. When I was in primary school, he would make me repeat this verse he’d impressed upon my young brain: “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 but was vaguely aware it poked fun at the Brits. Later, as an adult, I discovered the line dated to the 1916 Easter Uprising, which led to the establishment of the Irish Free State, today known as the Republic of Ireland. My parents and grandparents traveled there in later years and treasured those memories.
When I say our family deeply cherished its Celtic roots, I’m not exaggerating. We listened to the Irish Rovers and The Clancy Brothers. My parents not only had a St. Patrick’s Day party around March 17, they even celebrated something they called “Halfway to St. Patrick’s Day” in September. My older sister, the one upon whom the name Clarke was bestowed as a middle name, still holds a St. Patrick’s Day party each year that features a potato bar and live Irish music. (We’re skipping this year, sadly, due to the pandemic.)
Big sis inherited the traditional party after our mother passed away in 2009. I still remember sitting with Mom at her kitchen table, going over her mail with her just weeks before she died.
“Looks like you’re running low on return-address labels. Shall we order some more?” I asked her.
Her dwindling stash featured shiny green shamrocks.
“I won’t need them,” she said softly.
She knew the end was coming and had already helped us then-grown children choose which portions of her delicate, shamrock-festooned Belleek china we would inherit. My nephew, Michael Kevin, was to receive the shillelagh, a walking stick (or weapon!) fashioned from a tree root.
Mike’s a former Army Ranger, so that seemed appropriate.
I wonder what Mom would say about my son’s tattoo. Peter was close to Grandmom and profoundly mourned her passing. In her honor, he had a Celtic knot tattooed over his heart. She was old-fashioned, but I think Mom would have been touched by the gesture. She was also close to my Venezuelan-born husband, to whom she gave an “Honorary Irish” badge to wear each year on March 17.
The obituary I wrote for my mother asked those who attended her funeral to wear green in honor of her Irish heritage. Nearly everyone did and I’m not sure there’s ever been a funeral quite like that since.
Today, our family includes members from various ethnicities. We’re proud of who we are and honor not only our Irish heritage but also our Venezuelan, Korean and Italian roots, too. Our DNA test revealed we’ve even got British blood flowing in our veins. (What would my grandfather say about that?)
Yes, “we’re stronger together” as the saying goes, but every year on March 17, I don green, 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 of my life.
I may just come up with my own verse to impress upon the grandkids’ minds. Something about the ties that bind.