A wee bit o’ Irish–and some quick maths–go a long way

The question I dreaded answering came early in our recent trip to Ireland at around 5:30 a.m. on the drive from Dublin airport to our hotel from our 62-year-old cab driver, a seemingly nice enough bloke and good conversationalist, who, as we discovered after using an app to hail a cab with a set and transparent price for the return trip, probably charged us about double the normal fare (my bad for not asking his rate in the first place).

“So, do ye hav’ any Irish in ye? Any relations still livin’ here?

I avoided his eyes fixed on me in the rearview mirror, hung my head, and hesitated. I wanted to deflect and divert the dialogue in a different direction, more toward the two people in my circle (one of them a first-generation American woman with an English father and Irish mother who raised her in south Mississippi) who both regularly visit cousins residing in idyllic Irish towns and villages.

S. came to my rescue. “Not that much,” she answered. “My DNA shows about 5%.”

What she didn’t divulge is that her ethnicity profile is 25% Scottish (it’s the Frazier in her) and that the “Irish in me” is 5x less than hers.

Like many Americans, I proceeded through much of my life assuming I was much more Irish than I am. I grew up in Southwest Virginia around people with Scots-Irish surnames and had a few in my own family tree (Pasley, McGuire and Fisher). My mother, of the latter two lineages, was born on St. Patrick’s Day, a lucky charm if there ever was one. Dutiful to my “heritage” and in an attempt to honor her, I always aim to wear green on March 17th, although my color vision deficiency (a possible harbinger of truth), ironically inherited from “me Mam”, forces me to usually ask for help picking something out to avoid embarrassment.

I was surrounded by musical neighbors who occasionally convened in bric-a-brac filled front yards and on sagging wood porches to play bluegrass music that echoed the ancient rhythms and soulful wails of their Emerald Isle forebears. At times they were so caught up in spirits, both ancestral and distilled, their fingers and feet moved in rapid plucks, taps, stomps, and loops whose patterns and paths were almost too complex and fast for the naked eye to follow.

I tried to flatfoot, under the influence of much less than my native Franklin Country moonshine, at my 30th high school reunion. But I resembled a foot soldier trying to exterminate an invading army of cockroaches more than an Irish step dancer. Surrounded by several who knew what they were doing, I retreated to the back of the pack and danced alone, satisfied enough in the trying.

As I learned more, I realized my family primarily were among early English immigrants who landed at various points on the shores of the Chesapeake Bay in the 17th century and migrated west to settle the “New World”. An eventual DNA analysis told the sad, Irish-deficient tale in more stark, quantitative terms: only 1% of my genome closely resembled that of a control sample who have lived in Ireland for generations.

On the other hand, 61% of my DNA was English/NW Europe, 3% Scottish, 11% Welsh, and 23% Scandinavian. In other words, I was more Norman, Brit, and Viking, a descendant of Ireland’s invaders and oppressors, than I was cool Celt or lovable leprechaun, a genetic stock sheet I wasn’t about to recite to anyone during our stay.

DNA is powerful. It sets limits and parameters and weaves a biochemical script that figures prominently in how we think and act.

Still, I refuse to believe DNA is destiny—totally anyway—no matter its strong influence and pull. I prefer at the very least the “illusion” of choice, even if it is ever proven to be mere mist, and to believe in some measure of free will.

Nor from DNA do we “inherit the sins of our fathers.” Instead, we acquire the human condition, for better and for worse, clay hands and feet, shapeable, yet set in stone. We inherit a brain, cognitive “hardware”, and with it we learn patterns of thinking and develop habits that enable the extremes of both tenderness and terrorism to manifest.

To “know thyself” is not only to understand one’s roots but also to study history with intent and integrity. Disciplined research and reasoning leads to recognizing and acknowledging past shortcomings and transgressions, then clearing the air with open repentance on behalf of those who are no longer able when needed (and it usually is). To then move on and live to put those sins and their legacies to rights is a high calling—and quintessentially Irish.

These days some folks may sneer and call such thinking “woke”, but if so, then set my alarm to go off at the crack o’ dawn! Eyes wide open is “a right, a good, and a joyful thing.” With a wee bit o’ luck, someday our descendants will honor—and redeem—us in similar fashion.

One can choose to become Irish in character if not by chromosome then by: embracing that beautiful and wild volcanic rock along with her contradictions, culture, and vast, variegated landscapes born of violent geological and historical eruptions; opening up to the common good and “practicing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly” (not original to the Irish although they have traditionally taken such holy writ and deeds seriously); learning to properly smell and taste good whiskey and appreciating the sublime, dark riches of a properly poured Guinness stout straight from the tap; creating, cherishing, and preserving fine art, craftsmanship, poetry, song, and stories, both written and oral; not overthinking it when you hear a tall tale, myth, or legend but allowing instead perpetual waves of timeless and essential truths to wash over you and cleanse your spirit, and then walking away changed and thanking your gods and lucky stars you’re alive and in the moment.

In short, when in Ireland, “doing as the Irish do.”

At another point in the trip, a gentle and pleasant Irishwoman, well-versed in the fine arts of conversation and congeniality, asked me the same question I had originally tried to unartfully dodge. This time I held my head up, looked her straight in the eyes, and told the truth: “Only 1%, I’m afraid.”

“No matter,” she replied with a kind and welcoming smile. “You certainly look Irish.”

I wasn’t certain if she was referring to my stubby height, flecks of red in my scraggly, graying beard, or the “Euro” kit of flat cap, scarf, vest, and raincoat perhaps enabling me to better blend in with the native crowd.

She was right, though—it didn’t matter. I did the maths, tacked on two zeroes, and claimed my rightful heritage.