Wednesday, March 17, 2010

St. Patrick's Day Angst

I hardly ever wear green on St. Patrick’s Day. Or any other day, actually. It’s not one of my favorite colors. I imagine there might be a touch of Irish blood running through me, as I am predominantly of English descent. Still, wearing green on St. Patrick’s Day was more than frowned upon in our house; it was absolutely forbidden.

Both of my grandfathers were born and raised in England, coming to the United States as young men to start new lives in the early 1900’s. One grandfather was actually sent here at the age of sixteen because his parents – he never saw them again – feared for his life. Life in the border town he lived in was suffering from the battling Protestants and Catholics. My grandfather wanted to take part in these battles. His father put him on a ship to America instead, with a note to a friend saying that said his son would be willing to tend to the cows on his friend’s farm in return for a bed and meals. This began a very successful farming career for my grandfather, as well as a life-long hatred of Catholics, particularly if they were also Irish. My other grandfather, although he had lived in a calmer part of England, shared the same views.

I was bombarded with this thinking as a young child, raised as an Episcopalian, told to wear orange to school on St. Patrick’s Day. I dreaded going to school on St. Patrick’s Day. I was even more of a misfit on that day.

One of my aunts married a Catholic; his last name was Sweeney. My grandfather refused to walk down the aisle and give her away. I was in third grade when the wedding took place and didn’t understand much of the conflict within the family then, only that my aunt stood her ground. That marriage lasted more than nearly fifty years, until my aunt’s death, and would still be going strong today. My grandfather realized his error in judgment later in his life.

My other grandfather, who scorned anyone not of "English stock”, also came to understand that diversity brought treasures into your life. My German Baptist grandmother probably had much to do with turning him around.

As a teenager, I was forbidden to attend dances at St. Mary’s School. And I wanted to go to those dances in the worse way. Other high schools played records at their dances; St. Mary’s had live bands. My boyfriends played in those bands. Of course, I went anyway. The only reason my parents did not want me to go was because Catholic kids went to that school – as if I had no classmates in my school who were Catholic? The Caugheys? The Kelleys? The Shanahans? They might have been in a Catholic church once or twice. I went to every dance at St. Mary’s that I could get to and I think this was one of the first times I felt justified in disobeying my parents.

There is no doubt in my mind that my grandparents’ strong religious views had a lasting impact on my own desire to learn about all religions and not judge any yet not subscribe to any particular religion myself. I’ve never found any that really fits with how I think anyway. And I’ve been quite happy living this way. If I had to choose, I’d be a combination of Pagan, Buddhist and Jew. I can only imagine what my grandfathers might have to say about that but believe they would have come to acceptance.

Today I do not wear green on St. Patrick’s Day and pretend I am Irish like most of the world does, although I am supportive of others who can. I would not think of wearing orange either. I wear whatever I want and think of my grandfathers who harbored hatred yet learned to cast it out of their hearts and be more understanding of those who were different. It gives me hope that it’s never too late for others to learn this, too.

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