Yesterday I got a package from Chicago. I already knew what was in the small, but surprisingly heavy box. My Dad had been complaining about how much it cost to send and asking if I’d received it for days. It contained my mom’s Irish soda bread.
In many was it made no sense for her to send it, I live in Ireland for god’s sake. I probably could’ve bought six loves of actual Irish soda bread for the price it cost them to send the one.
But that seemed somehow beyond the point. My family has a long tradition of soda bread making around St. Patrick’s Day. A tradition passed on from my grandmother, whose parents came from Castlebar, Co. Mayo.
“Does it have raisins in it? Sugar? Why is it so light-colored,” my Irish friend questioned. We resolved to call the bread, “Irish-American soda bread” because it is not something an Irish person would normally call soda bread as it involves a bit of sugar and lots of raisins whereas the “Irish” soda bread is of a more savory variety.
Receiving the bread not only made me a bit nostalgic for Chicago on St. Patrick’s Day when the river is dyed green, where there are two parades, a rowdy ruckus affair on the South Side that has been banned this year, and a more civilized downtown parade, and where everyone is Irish on March 17th.
Some of my earliest memories are of riding on a float in the St. Patrick’s Day parade, which, by chance, always seemed to be on the rainiest, coldest and most miserable March day. But still my sister and I sat on the float in little green coats or Irish sweaters, waving to the crowd. My aunt spoke in a fake Irish brogue and sang “Whistling Gypsy Rover,” among other Clancy Brother favorites.
When I was older and enrolled in Irish dance classes, we marched in the parade again, despite the weather, freezing even in the woolen dresses with sweaters over them. Sometimes the crows would throw beer cans at us and scream at us to “dance girls, dance!” But most of the time it was an enjoyable enough experience. It awakened a certain kind of pride in being Irish, dancing for crowds in church basements and bars smelling of corned beef and cabbage, floors sticky with stout.
The soda bread made another appearance at school, after which we were compelled to dance for our grammar school classes. Being the only Irish-Catholics in a predominantly Jewish school, we were a bit of an oddity. There was even a girl who used to mockingly sing “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling” when I walked down the hall. Strange enough, she was one of my “friends.”
I haven’t been in Chicago on March 17th for years but I still miss the green river and the South Side parade. Though the soda bread arrived to me when I lived in New York, receiving it this year in Ireland, it took on a new kind of significance.
I started thinking about how the recipe for the soda bread was based on some recipe my great-grandmother brought with her from Mayo, a way of retaining her culture, even in her new surroundings. Though the recipe may have been changed and altered through the years the tradition persists.
Now here I am, in Maynooth, receiving the same bread through the mail. My grandmother’s soda bread isn’t a reminder of Ireland but of Chicago. And so, Irish-American traditions are brought back to Ireland.
As I walked the streets of Dublin this weekend I was a bit appalled at the fake Irishry everywhere. Partially due to the Ireland vs. Wales rugby match, partially due to the number of visitors in town for St. Pat’s Day, everyone seemed to be wearing a large green leprechaun hat, complete with fake beard.
Everywhere I looked were the same stupid hats, a sea of neon green. I can only imagine that things will be worse tomorrow. I doubt they will dye the Liffy green or that any pubs will serve green beer, but with all the hats it does seem that there are some Irish-American habits that have been transplanted to Ireland. The only difference is the accents are real.