Stories of My Irish-American Family
As far as I can recall, my father always had white hair. When I was only five years old, he was already fifty—yet he refused to act his age. I remember playing basketball with my father at the nearby courts of our humble apartment. He used to urge me to get my head out of the books and go out to the track and run alongside him. Although he was decades older than me, his energy was infectious.
Like myself, in his younger years my father was all about adventure. When he hit 28 and felt lost in his career, he signed up for the army and volunteered for Vietnam. What possessed him to go to a war torn country and dodge bullets is anyone’s guess, but I imagine that he was hungry for what most young people my age are looking for now: excitement, travel, and meaningful work.
My dad covered Vietnam as an armed journalist for radio. His work was featured on CBS, NBC and other famous media outlets. He hosted “good evening Vietnam,” the counterpart to the famous radio morning show “good morning Vietnam” with Pat Sajack from Wheel of Fortune (who, he said, was an old friend). Although he didn’t like to talk about Vietnam much in his younger years, you could tell it was the most defining five years of his life.
My grandmother sent him letters monthly, urging him to come home, find a wife and settle down. “You’re getting old, son” she remarked on his 34th birthday. “It’s time you found a wife.” A year later, at 35, my father was more than happy living the bachelor life—that is, until his Vietnamese girlfriend became pregnant. I’m sure he wasn’t ready, but nevertheless, he fulfilled his duty as a respectable man and married her (and they’ve been married for 30 years).
I’m sure he was content with just one kid, but ten years later my mother nudged him and said “wouldn’t it be nice to have a daughter?” And then, at the ripe, old age of 45, my mother got her wish and he became the father to a half-Irish, half-Vietnamese daughter.
My grandmother, Winnie, fled Ireland during the potato famine and, like most Irish immigrants at the time, came to the U.S. looking for a new life. She soon met a fine Irishman and wed, giving birth to my father and aunt. My father grew up in the tough districts of Boston in an Irish immigrant neighborhood. Like a typical Irish-immigrant story of hardship, my grandfather was a drunk and, while working on a roof as a handyman intoxicated, fell and ruptured his skull and left this world shortly after. Winnie was now left alone in a new land, with no friends and no family, to raise her two young children alone.
Back then there was discrimination against the Irish (and the Italians and Greeks and other recent European immigrants). They banded together to survive, forming neighborhoods, cliques and alliances–and my father’s family was no exception. They shared a townhouse with another Irish family, where everyone gathered in the evenings after dinner to listen to old Irish songs and radio shows in Gaelic. In those days everyone in Ireland was fluent in Irish-Gaelic, including my grandmother. My father never picked up the language—only the swear words his mother screamed when frustrated—which he still remembers to this day.
One of the happiest days of my father’s youth was Kennedy’s announced presidency. The entire Irish community gathered around the radio, he said, and waited in eager anticipation to hear the election results. When Irish-Catholic Kennedy won, it was not only a big step for the nation, but a huge leap forward for the entire Irish-American community.
My grandmother Winnie was one tough woman. She is the epitome of the early immigrants that shaped America into what it is today. Winnie worked two, sometimes three jobs to provide for her family. Winnie’s hands were often red and raw from her laundry washing (back then it was done by hand) and house cleaning jobs, but she didn’t let the low wages or fatigue get her down. If she could work an extra shift, she did; and somehow, when she came home, she labored again in the kitchen to cook Irish meals such as beef stew and meat and potatoes for her hungry children.
Winnie was a bright, jovial woman. She would invite anyone willing into the house for a cup of tea or, if occasion called, a shot of Irish whiskey. Winnie’s smile was infectious and her hearty laugh lingered. Her complaints were little to none, and if she was suffering on the inside, it was hard to see. Her stoicism was formidable, her positive energy and optimism her greatest asset. Through and through she was an Irish-woman—from her accent to her walk—she had the gusto and energy of a true Galway girl.
“Mom!” my father cried one day, running up from the basement. “There’s a black man in our basement!”
“Yeah,” Winnie replied, indifferent. “That’s Tom. He’s going to be living with us for a while. He’s going to help around the house.”
“Why?” my father said, somewhat frightened.
“Because Tom has nowhere to go, son,” Winnie said with a smile. “We’re going to help him until he can get back on his feet. We need to help people when they’re in need.”
In a time when racism ran rampant, my grandmother hid a black man in her home and gave him food and clothing. She helped Tom find a job and, without even knowing it, introduced her family to diversity. Years later, my father defended his cameraman (a black man) in Mississippi against racists that threatened to not only run him out of town, but hurt him.
My father laughed heartily when he recalled the story of Tom. “I was so shocked to find a black man in the basement Mary,” my dad snorted. “Back then, it wasn’t very common to see a black man back East, much less have one appear in your home out of nowhere!”
Tom wasn’t the only one, my father said. Whenever there was anyone in need, Winnie opened up her very humble abode to the weary, the poor, and the downtrodden. Although Winnie’s resources were stretched thin providing for herself and her children, she still welcomed the needy with a helping hand.
This story moves me like no other. Giving unto others. Helping the poor. Assisting the unfortunate. Values our rich and wealthy economies have all but forgotten.
When my mother first arrived in the United States, Winnie took her in like a daughter. My mother couldn’t speak English very well, but my grandmother continued to teach her words and phrases with patience and assurance. She taught my mother how to make corned beef and cabbage, meat and potatoes and beef stew. Even though my mother is Vietnamese, her corned beef and cabbage is better than any I’ve sampled in nearby Irish pubs. My mother still remembers the kindness of Winnie, and how she gave her the courage to start a new life in this foreign land—much like Winnie did decades before.
Winnie traveled from Boston to Utah to see us almost every year. As a child I used to call nana every week and tell her about my ballet lessons and how I was taking up the flute. She complimented me and beamed with pride, encouraging me with a laugh and a smile. When she came to visit, my friends not only commented on my mom’s accent, but also my grandmother. “Why does your grandmother sound so funny?”
My father visited Ireland with Winnie while he was still serving in the army. They toured Dublin, the castles of Cork, and of course returned to my grandmother’s home, Connemara, in Galway.
My father said Ireland was the most beautiful place he had ever seen. As green as the eye can see, he told me. Winnie’s brother remained there continuing his trade as a farmer and, somehow, her old home was still intact. Before the potato famine, Winnie and her family were farmers and sheepherders in the rolling green of the Irish countryside.
“It was a small cottage with a dirt floor and straw roof,” my father recalled, his eyes looking up as he returned to the scene in memory. “It was only two rooms, a kitchen and a room for sleeping. The front door brought you in, but the back door opened up to the ocean, right at the door. We sat at the table and had some Irish whiskey with uncle, looking out at the green fields and the ocean beyond the horizon.”
I listened to my father, bright-eyed and entranced. Oh, how I wanted to go to Ireland.
When I requested my Irish citizenship, I gathered all of my grandmother’s documents. Before sealing them away, my father held them in his hand and lingered.
“It feels strange to have my mother’s whole life right here in my hands,” he said, his eyes fixated on the certificates but his mind in another place. I looked at her birth and marriage certificate and tried to envision the life she had before my father. Working the fields in Ireland, leaving her family in the Emerald Isle, starting a life in a foreign land.
I talk about being Asian and living in Asia quite often on this blog. My mother’s Asian ideals subconsciously crept into my life and shaped me into who I am. Perhaps it was her influence that eventually drew me to live in Japan and China to fulfill a sort of destiny with the Far East.
Yet I’m fiercely proud to be Irish, and it’s because of Winnie and my father. The Irish have a fun and infectious personality that brings people together and laugh. The Irish are a hardworking people with a tragic past. The Irish have a homeland rich with Celtic culture, lush green landscapes and ancient relics of the past—so much so, the island almost has a magical, mysterious energy to it. The Irish are strong. The Irish endure.
Many people remark that I look like my father; yet I can also attest that I have his spontaneous, adventurous, dreamy, ambitious, hardworking and fierce Irish spirit. Without a doubt, I am more like my father than my mother.
It was hard to communicate with my mother (both linguistically and culturally), and the frustration I experienced is more than I could ever put into words. Yet my respite was my father. I talked to him often, and when mom couldn’t understand, he always seemed to know exactly what I was thinking. Like my father I loved to write, to tell stories, to bring people together. My father always encouraged me to become a writer, even to this day.
I’m proud to be my father’s daughter. I’m proud to be Irish.
This morning I found out my father is suffering from a serious condition. I write this because, honestly, I miss him and I don’t know what else I can do. I love my father and I’m praying for his recovery. Apologies for the random jumble of stories.
11 thoughts on “Stories of My Irish-American Family”
Very touching story. I’m glad you shared it. I have a similar story about my Irish side, but I can’t say I’m proud to be Irish when indeed I’m not. I have done nothing for Ireland and I should know my place. My Irish side immigrated to Maine instead of Boston, though…New England is New England.
By the way, I hope your father will be okay and is very well.
Hi Eileen, yeah, I remember you saying you were not proud of your Irish side.. And indeed, if my grandma Winnie wasn’t as amazing as she was, I probably wouldn’t be half as proud either. I also should tone down my pride a bit until I actually go over there, haha, but I think because my grandmother was straight off the boat I feel somewhat closer to the culture.
Thanks for your well wishes! I hope he will be okay too…
Lovely and interesting read… I’m sorry to hear that your dad is not well.
Your storytelling is beautiful, Mary!
Your grandma sounds like an extraordinary woman.
I hope your father gets well soon. Hugs!
Ireland, The Irish Republic …….your pictures brought back lovely memories of my Irish holidays many moons ago.
Hope your father feel better soon.
Love hearing about people’s personal histories. Have you ever read Angela’s Ashes? I tried, am somewhere in it and then stopped because it was TOO FUCKING DEPRESSING. Damn drunken father breaks my heart every time. Yes, the Irish endure.
I also can relate to being raised by an Asian mother and a white man. I related to my stepfather much more than my birth mother simply because of the culture and language barrier. And yet, we are our mother’s daughters in many ways that are unseen and unspoken.
I hope you hear good news about your father soon. Try not to think too much, if that is possible. Hugs from Cambo. xxoo
Hope your family matters sort themselves out. I have been there. I am new to this blog, so bear (bare?) with me. As being half Irish, I do scratch my head sometimes about the world. Peace.
Thanks for the comments and for your support 🙂
If your grandmother was fleeing the “famine” then she left in the 1840s chances are she just emigrated because in De Valera’s Ireland there were few jobs and a very poor economy but if your grandmother was born in the 1900s she didn’t flee due to the alleged “famine”