It turns out I am 29% Irish, according to my latest ancestry.com ethnicity estimate and that all Irish genetic inheritance comes from John Frances Prendergast and Edith Alice Brougham. Genetics is one sort of claim, but as we know here in America, blood quantum is not all there is to lost tribe members like us. Living the culture seems more important, however far removed from the original.
About my Irish culture, I was born during the Kennedy administration at a time when Irish heritage in the US was finally big a point of pride and I could take that sort of acceptance for granted. That wasn’t always so of course but this isn’t about that.
Aside from Hudson Valley Dutch leprechauns, Maasai shillelaghs, and cultural exports lobbed across the pond, I have had the pleasure of meeting a few actual Irish people.
As a matter of fact, I met my wife who is Eastern European Jewish, not Irish Jewish, but had honorary status at a bar, the Druid in Inman Square, Cambridge. It was a happy time and place, the scene managed by the owner, an Irish expatriate that hosted other Irish expatriates and those just passing through, musicians, academics, professionals, students, post-graduate strugglers and other strays. We drank Guinness and got takeout Buffalo wings from the deli across the street before the kitchen went in.
One year we all marched in a St. Patrick’s Day parade in Cambridge after eggs and sausage and early morning pints and one cold winter evening we really made the windows sweat. The seisiún musicians were on fire accompanied by a professor of Gaelic from up the road who would declaim poetry standing on a chair during the pauses in the music and the step dancing in a narrow aisle between the crowd at the bar and the crowd at the tables.
Through my work making architectural models, I met Mary a very talented miniaturist and her husband Rory, a software guy, who were friends for a time, Irish citizens on a work visa living in Boston. They gave me a lesson on how to drink astonishing quantities of alcohol, remain upright into the wee hours and go to work the next morning. Their method involved Lite beer and shots at a demanding pace, then a slow taper. Real pros, Mary and Rory. They went back to Dublin and I lost track of them.
Through my work as a contractor in New York City I once hired an undocumented Irish national named “Padraig” to plaster a complicated ceiling in an East Village Indian restaurant we were renovating. I met Padraig at a bar named The Village Idiot on First Avenue where the crew drank after work and several people went by nomes de guerre. Tommy McNeil, the man who opened the place recalled:
Back then, it was a place where edgy Manhattanites came to drink, fight and dance – in that order.
“It was the place to go in the late ’80s and early ’90s,” one old-timer recalled.
“You could see music – bands like Roots – and still feel connected to the bohemia of old New York. It was fun, but the people were dangerous. You had to know how to fight.
“But that was the magic of it as well. You’d punch some guy in the face, but they wouldn’t throw you out – they’d just ask you to sit in another booth.”
In ’94, the Idiot left the Village for the Meatpacking District, where rents were cheaper.BYE-BYE, BAWDY – DOWNTOWN LOSING ITS VILLAGE IDIOT, by Tom Sykes. July 29, 2004, New York Post
Hiring Padraig was illegal of course but he was recommended by the bartender a Black American guy named “Aid MacSpade” who occasionally wore a kilt and moonlighted as a carpenter on his days off from bar duty. In that scene, it was just the right thing to do, hire the Irish guy because we were all brothers of sorts. The ceiling came out well. Talented guy Padraig, who I paid in cash and shots of Jamesons, before he moved on to somewhere else.
Through my work as an exhibit designer in Boston I met Malcolm O’Hagan, an Irish expat who made a home and career in the US and in his “retirement” founded the American Writers Museum in Chicago. In fact, the first time I met Malcolm was at a lunch at the Black Rose in downtown Boston a block from our office with me and my business partner Andy Anway. Malcolm described his ideas for a new American museum after visiting the Dublin Writers Museum. We worked on the American Writers Museum for years before finally seeing it through and Amaze Design, the company I work for, continues to design temporary exhibits for them.
Other than a handful of actual Irish people and small shelf of Irish songs, books and movies, that’s it. I’m American, not Irish and in America we’re all culturally part Irish (and Jewish, English, Italian, African, etc.) or so I believe. That’s credit largely to us, members of a very large club called the Irish diaspora. But enough about me.
Our diaspora started in 1894 when Mom’s grandparents, John Francis Prendergast and Edith Alice Brougham came to America. All my other ancestors both father and mother arrived much earlier. They came in pursuit of God or wealth or higher social status. John and Edith came for love.
Our Irish American family begins with a love story.