My Irish Heritage

I have been aware of my Irish heritage for as long as I can remember. Growing up in the 1960’s and 1970’s Mom fed us Lucky Charms for breakfast and corned beef and cabbage on St. Patrick’s Day and we all listened to McNamara’s Band on the stereo. In 1988 Mom and Dad traveled to Ireland and visited Lismore, where Mom’s grandparents John Francis Prendergast and Edith Alice Brougham were born and raised. My sister has traveled in Ireland too. I’ve never been to Ireland or to England yet either. I’ll get there someday, but in the mean time, here is a look at over there from over here.

These notes are a bloggy collection of books, newspapers and other written records, legal, bureaucratic, genealogical and also photographs, paintings, cartoons and maps, all the bits and pieces relevant in some way to my Irish great grandparents and their families. I’m writing this as a hobby, for pleasure, out of curiosity about my own ethnic identity, and this first part here is all about me, but the rest of this should be of interest to anyone descended from John Francis Prendergast and Edith Alice Brougham. 

Hello first cousins, all you MacEntees, and Cavanaughs.

We are ethnically Irish but we are also, broadly speaking, among the 100 million or so people of the Diaspóra na nGael or Irish diaspora, the product of generations of ethnic intermarriage in America. We’re part Irish, part other ethnicities. 

We’re a blended concoction like for instance, a boilermaker. Shot of Jamesons with a glass of Harpoon IPA. That used to be my drink.

Three generations in and I can tell you that whatever Irish there is in me was melted into the bigger pot long ago, except for like maybe one day a year when some of us make some noise, parade, sing and drink and decorate the yard with leprechauns.

A life-size balloon leprechaun at Boston’s St Patrick’s Day Parade in 2018.

I love the once a year leprechauns. I also loved the everyday leprechauns for a time early on. Mom taught us that if you catch a leprechaun you could force it to lead you to their hidden pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, a story that she told and we kids echoed whenever rainbows appeared.

I understood leprechauns to be bigger than grandma’s garden gnome, a similar species it seemed to me, possibly also related to the little Dutch men just north in the Catskills who put  Rip Van Winkle to sleep with a game of bowling. I was told that thunder came from little Dutch men still bowling in the mountains and that rainbows pointed to leprechauns. 

Little creatures and mushrooms came out in unsettled weather.

Rip Van Winkle playing ninepins in the Catskill Mountains. Illustration. Unknown source. These guys are not leprechauns, but to child they seemed related. Maybe it was the hats and buckles.

My Hudson Valley Dutch leprechauns are a far cry from actual Irish folklore. I understand The National Leprechaun Museum explains well the real Irish creatures.

These stories were a delight up to a point, but the prospect of forcing an adult being about my size to do anything against its will was frightening especially because I knew leprechauns carried shillelaghs to beat off nosy little boys.

Actual shillelaghs are a kind of walking stick made from a Blackthorn shrub with a knob at the end which makes the walking stick also a club. 

Irish Shillelagh Club 22″ long with 10.5″ diameter head. Of typical form with lacquered head and wrist thong. Sold for $63, February 2020.

Much more recently, my wife brought home a Rungu (a Swahili word) from her trip to East Africa. The Maasai sell them as souvenirs and use them in warfare and for hunting. Now you can even buy them on Amazon, Etsy and eBay.

Here is my Maasai shillelagh. Feels great to hold it. Swing it around. Nothing particularly Irish in that feeling though, having a weapon like that in your hand. Pity that I don’t have any skill to use it, because it is the only weapon in the house.

I was raised with the holy trinity of the American Irish diaspora: leprechauns, their hidden gold and their shillelaghs and when I came of age (actually a few years before) I took the sacrament.

There is no American version of this.

And over here once a year the Chicago river turns green, politicians, police and fire departments parade in cities big and small and we fight about who else gets to participate.

Photo of Neo Nazis at the March 22, 2022 St. Patrick’s Day Parade in South Boston.

I love parades. There’s nothing like patriotic feelings, civic and ethnic pride to get your blood up. Back in the 90’s the fight was over including a gay contingent in the St. Patrick’s Day parades in and around Boston. Our side won. And now I see that masked Neo Nazis appeared along the parade route in South Boston this year (2022) posing as neighborhood guys. I understand the general reaction was “fuck them” which, good on you Southie. The fight continues.

In addition to the yearly celebrations there are so many channels to turn to for “real” Irish culture, mostly TV, movies, books, and music. This wasn’t always so. About the time I was born, an Irish politician trashed our American traditions and his own tourism industry for catering to our expectations.

For many years, we were afflicted with the miserable trivialities of our tourist advertising. Sometimes it descended to the lowest depths, to the caubeen and the shillelagh, not to speak of the leprechaun. I should have hoped that the Arts Council would have long since exorcised that sort of spirit which appears to be still permeating some sections of the United States.

Mr. J.A. Costello. Dáil Éireann – Volume 206- 11 December, 1963. Committee on Finance. – Vote 13—An Chomhairle Ealaoín. Source:

Apparently, Mr. Costello, the 3rd Taoiseach or head of the government himself would dismiss my magically delicious Lucky Charms breakfast as trivial, a position with which I strongly disagree. Breakfast is the most important meal of the day.

Lucky Charms cereal advertisement.

Some of the channels I turn to are books, anything by or about Oscar Wilde, for instance, all the Roddy Doyle books and the movies that followed, the Commitments, the Snapper and any other Stephen Frears movie. That was a phase along with the music, the Pogues and the Cranberries and Sinéad O’Connor of course.

Banner photo from article Derry Girls. “You’ve followed the exploits of Erin and the gang in the hit comedy series, Derry Girls. Here’s how you can have your own Derry~Londonderry adventure” December 3, 2022.

I’m a fan of Derry Girls, especially that last episode, the Clinton visit. Wow. I was in college during that period. And then just last week I watched the Banshees of Inisherin, which hit on all levels, deadly grim & funny as hell. These all help to feel connected to the culture, and boy some of this does it date me.

I don’t happen to love it all though, the Riverdance revivals and Celtic roots performances and the ubiquitous Enya, mystical magical mood music for suburban neopagan tourists. No, but I do respect the desire to taste your roots however weak the blend and I am such a snot about some things.