I spoke with my cousin Michelle O’Dwyer — born and bred in Ireland, though living in New York since ‘97 — about Saint Patrick’s Day, being Irish in the U.S. and glow-in-the-dark symbols of divine hypostasis.
Patrick Kilkelly: What kind of reaction do you get from people in New York, being Irish?
Michelle O’Dwyer: People here always have some kind of connection to Ireland, whether it’s a relative who’s been to Ireland, they’ve been there themselves or they have some Irish heritage.
Do you think it’s been a positive thing for you?
It’s funny, Americans are very aware of Ireland ... but they’re not really. One woman I worked with found out I was Irish; she was of Irish descent. She said, “My family’s from Dublin — my mom and my dad.” I said, “Oh really? I’m from Dublin too. What part are they from?” “Donegal,” she told me. [Donegal is a county in North-West Ireland, on the other side of the country.] You get a lot of that — people who seem very aware of their Irish heritage, but they really aren’t because they have no idea about anything to do with Ireland, any part of Ireland or Irish culture. They’ll tell you with great assuredness that they’re Irish ... but they have no idea where they’re from. Sometimes people have picked up on a place name as an ancestral homeland, but it’s a fictitious name from a film or something. Or people will ask “Wow, you’re Irish! Have you seen Braveheart?”
So on the one hand, people you’ve met in the U.S. are quite enthusiastic and passionate about their Irish heritage, but on the other hand, their knowledge is quite limited.
People are extremely positive about their Irish roots, but it’s just on the surface. At this time of year, the stores are filled with party goods and green plastic bowler hats and glow-in-the-dark shamrocks, all kinds of things — but people have no idea what any of them mean.