"Irish Girl" - and what does that mean exactly?

Posted by MeganFinnegan at 3/18/2009 2:58 PM EDT

Irish American. I get the American part. I was born here, I’m a citizen, I speak English and my passport is stamped with the U.S. seal. But what’s with the Irish part?

With a surname like Finnegan, I can’t help but be identified as a daughter of Eire. When the HR guy at my office gave me my computer password, I asked him why there’s an “IG” at the end.

“What, you can’t figure that out?” he said.

“Um, no.”

“Irish Girl!”

And there you have it. A few freckles and a Gaelic sounding name, and I’m pegged. No one can tell that my maternal grandparents ventured straight off the boat from Ireland’s very own neighborhood bully, Her Majesty’s Kingdom, or that it’s possible that What’s His Name Finnegan changed the spelling when he arrived at Ellis Island, too many generations ago to track.

When my red-headed compatriot Rachael spent a semester abroad at the University of Limerick, she had her Irish mates guffawing into their Guinnesses if she ever referred to herself as Irish. They think it’s hysterical that we all don green felt hats on St. Patrick’s Day and display little orange, white and green flags in our dorm rooms. I went to visit Rachael and was subjected to their snarky questions.

"Why do you Americans try so hard to be Irish?" asked one lanky guy.

"I'm not trying," I retorted, a tad defensively. "It's part of my heritage."

That cracked them up. I’ve set foot in the Mother Land, but only as a tourist. I only like Guinness as an ingredient in stew or cake. I’m a confirmed Roman Catholic, but get more inspiration from Barack Obama than from the Pope. I’m definitely American. I’m sort of Irish.

And yet.

Finding others who share my last name and distant, but nonetheless vital, heritage is more than just a way to waste time on Facebook. I’ve never entered a conversation on oppressed peoples without ranting about the overlooked tragedy of The Famine. And though being in any way Irish has nothing to do with the way present-day Americans observe St. Paddy’s, I still celebrate with pride, and raise a glass (of Murphy’s) to those long-dead Irish souls responsible for my translucent skin and affinity for storytelling.

A few years after grilling me in a downtown Limerick pub, this same posse of Irish lads flew to New York for St. Patrick's Day and spent the entire 3-day jaunt wasted out of their minds. So that's what it means to be Irish, I thought. Successfully fulfill the stereotype! Great job, guys!

So what does it mean to be Irish? Is it more than beer and myth and genetics? Is it a birthplace and an accent or an ability to embrace 1/32 of your background for the sake of a culture and a country that, for some reason, you love? If it's not in a tacky souvenir flag or at the bottom of a glass, then what is it?

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