My relationship with Ireland, like many once-strong relationships often are, was first tested at a frat. I did not fight a British person, nor did I say something blasphemous about how Margaret Thatcher is a poli-sci girlboss (to be clear, she is very much not!). Almost regrettably, I was not the perpetrator. Rather, the strength of my heritage was tested by none other than another Irish guy trying to use our similar heritage to hit a home run.
The foundations of my Irish pride lie in the labor my dad put into making a life in America. After immigrating alone from Dublin in 1994 and struggling to find housing, my dad worked various odd jobs: bouncer at a nightclub, chef at a pizza chain, and floor associate at a department store. He met my mom, his coworker, at the latter. Since then, my dad has worked tirelessly to ensure that my brothers and I have everything we need to succeed in America, but he has done so in a way that nurtured our respect for Ireland and shared heritage. This sentiment was also ingrained in me by my mother’s side of the family. Her grandfather immigrated to America from Donegal, Ireland during Prohibition. As a result of this dual lineage, the majority of our family vacations have been in Dublin, where we have stayed with my grandmother and reconnected with the rest of our family on the other side of the pond.
During the What’s your major? Where are you from? What’s your net worth? questions that every Yale student is legally required to ask upon meeting someone, I would inevitably bring up my Irish heritage because I have thoughts about moving back after graduation. My friends have started to refer to me as their “Irish friend,” and as I continue to plan my education around returning to Ireland, my heritage has become a strong part of my identity. Now to the fateful moment: the identity that I held so close was shaken in the most ironic way—by someone born and raised in Ireland, the guy at the frat.
We had made idle chatter, half yelling to raise our voices above the music, and I made a comment about how my great-great uncle, the brother of my mother’s grandfather, had been arrested by the British for his involvement in the Irish Republican Army. He responded with, “Oh, everyone has a relative in the IRA!” A seemingly harmless comment, yes, but one that struck me as particularly odd. It made me call into question the strength of my connection to Ireland. If everyone has a connection to the IRA, why was mine special? Why should mine matter?
This moment devolved into a spiral of cultural imposter syndrome. I thought: I had never been in Ireland for longer than ten days. I had never attended school in Ireland. I do not speak Gaelic. I am nowhere near an expert on Irish history. How could I claim a connection to a culture I felt I had never truly been a part of?
Identity is such a fickle thing. I know I’m not alone in this internal crisis; it’s part of the time-honored torn immigrant identity dilemma. The thing about identity and heritage, however, is that they cannot be bound strictly by location. If that were true, if I could not have a connection to Ireland just because I am not a native Irish citizen, then that would completely discount the effort my parents have put into maintaining our family’s connection to the country. I thought of how my dad continued his childhood traditions in our home––like having pancakes for dinner the night before Lent––and how my mom would set up little Leprechaun pranks on St. Patrick’s Day. While I haven’t been to Ireland in nearly five years because of pandemic travel restrictions, I still call my grandmother every other week and keep in touch with my cousins. I don’t care if a native-born Irish citizen doesn’t think I’m “Irish enough” to have as much pride in my Irish heritage as I do, because it’s enough for me. Besides, why am I trying to impress a guy at a frat?
I still plan on visiting Ireland for more than a vacation; I have a meeting with a study abroad officer next week. As of right now, I keep my heritage in my daily life by wearing a Claddagh ring on my left middle finger. I have no idea if this is the proper finger or hand to wear it on, but I do know which way to turn it depending on my relationship status. In a way, this is representative of the whole of my relationship with my Irish heritage—I may not know everything about Ireland and Irish culture, but I know enough about what it means to me. To anyone who disagrees, I say the one thing my dad has taught me to say in Gaelic: póg mo thóin.