On Being Irish

At the turn of the last century, my Great Uncle Jack was banished by his Catholic father in Ireland for dating a Protestant girl. Henry left money on the kitchen table, together with a note, instructing his eldest son to buy a one way ticket to America.

I tried, for many years, to find a record of Jack’s departure from Ireland and searched passenger lists for sailings between Cobh and New York in the early 1900s. I found plenty of O’Connells but no John O’Connell from Virginia, Co. Cavan. In 2017, a local historian in Waterford told me that many emigrating Irish had chosen to drop the O’ in order to sound more English; the Irish, back then, were bunched together with ‘Blacks and Dogs’ in the shortlist of undesirables.

Last week, it was revealed that the holiday park operator, Pontin’s, had compiled a blacklist of Irish names. The company wished to prevent bookings from Traveller families, even going so far as to employ ‘floor walkers’ to listen in on calls and guide agents through the rejection process. O’Connell is on the list of boycotted names.

In 1982, I was living in New York at a time when NORAID (The Irish Northern Aid Association) was actively fundraising for the republican cause. It was widely suspected that money was being used to buy and ship arms to the Provisional IRA. A street vendor on Fifth Avenue, hearing my English accent, began to yell a tirade of abuse at me, telling me and my people to get out of Northern Ireland and leave the Irish in peace. I was in my early twenties, recently arrived in the city and the angry, shouting man unnerved me. I walked quickly down the street to avoid having further contact with him. If I’d had the presence of mind to stop and the courage to articulate my feelings, I could have told him that, in spite of the way I sounded, I was the great granddaughter of an Irishman who had cared very deeply about his country’s politics. Henry O’Connell had also hated people who sounded just like me. The love he felt for Ireland and his Catholic faith had been stronger even than the love he felt for his firstborn son.

I have an undated photograph of Uncle Jack at the Statue of Liberty. He’s a dead ringer for my father, one of the many nephews he never met. No one knows for sure what happened to Jack. He wrote to his mother for a year or two, after which the letters stopped. Some family members say that he moved to Chicago, others that his outspoken political opinions almost certainly led to his early death in a street fight.