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Ancestry Kits & St. Patrick's Day

[Listen to an audio version of this blog here.]

"Are you Irish?" said the man on the other end of the phone when he heard my last name. "McMahon," I had told him.

"With two n's?" he asked.

"No, like Ed McMahon," I answer, "M-c-M-a-h-o-n."

Old men always know who Ed McMahon is, or was. McMahon is an Irish name, the man on the phone isn't wrong about that. McMahon is derived from the Gaelic MacMathghamhna meaning "son of the bear." The exact degree to which I actually own any Irish ancestry is a foggy point at best. Maybe some, maybe none, I don't really know but either way, it isn't much.

Which is kind of okay, because most of what I have gleaned about the Irish from pop culture is that they eat potatoes and drink beer and smack their wives and children and say things like "On me tod!" Or, "May the road rise up and meet you." They are devout Catholics who have too many children and every year, on the 17th of March, they seep out of our cracks and floorboards to dump green dye in our rivers and in our beers. They sing and shout and make us believe we're all a bit Irish, just a little, and that this day is ours, too. Then, we wake up hungover with dry mouths and a hopelessness in our chests because we are not all charmingly Irish, nor are we very charming. We're just dumb, regular folks going about our dumb, regular lives.

I was once offered an ancestry test, one where you spit into tubes and mail it away to some lab where they compare your spit to thousands of other spit samples and deduct that you are, in fact, 8% Irish, not 12% like your mother thought. There are also DNA tests for dogs for the do-gooders who rescue three-legged half-wolves and dress them in plaid sweaters with matching boots and buy them Temper Pedic dog beds and all-organic, non-GMO, free-range, vegan dog kibble. Nothing against half-wolves, I quite prefer them to most dumb, regular people.

Anyway, I didn't take the ancestry test because I don't think it matters one bit what percentage I am of anything. I'm so obviously Caucasian that it doesn't make a hill-of-a-beans difference what kind of Caucasian I am, because being Caucasian is the last thing that matters about anyone, unless you're a tall, handsome Caucasian man with a higher-than-average salary, in which case the world is demanding that you say you are sorry.

Irish folks have not been particularly smiled upon, historically speaking. Anti-Irish sentiments in Victorian Britain and 19th century United States manifested themselves in the stereotyping of the Irish as violent and alcoholic, so it's no wonder that I have internalized some of these obviously wrong ideas. Magazines such as Punch portrayed the Irish as having "bestial, ape-like or demonic features" and the Irishman of being of a "lower evolutionary order." The English resented the Irish for settling in their towns and cities after the Great Famine and barred the Irish from jobs, housing, employment, etc. Later, in America, discrimination against Irish Catholics reached a peak in the mid 1850's, and you can find historical signs and notices that read, Help wanted – no Irish need apply.

In spite of historical prejudice, Americans now celebrate St. Patrick's day with the gusto of millions of beer bellies and a preponderance of green clothing and ill-fitting neckties. St. Paddy's is the 3rd largest drinking holiday, right behind Mardi Gras and New Years Eve. We eat corned beef and cabbage and pretend to like it. We drink Shamrock shakes and wonder why we developed diabetes all of a sudden. We pinch other people if they don't wear something green, leaving trails of bruises down our loved ones arms. We are absolutely dumb, regular people and we don't have the faintest clue.

Once, when I was waitressing in college, an old man sidled up to a stool at the breakfast diner bar and requested an omelet, dry toast, and a cup of coffee. After he ate and signed the check, he asked me, "Are you one of those Black Irish?"

I said, "I don't think so," and he snorted at me. He left me two dollars in quarters and came back every Saturday for his omelet, dry toast, and coffee. He never asked me any more questions, but he always left two dollars in quarters in a perfect stack when he left. Once, he left a drawing of a four-leafed clover on his single-ply napkin and I almost smiled.

March is to the year what Wednesday is to the week. Winter drags on and teases us with days of sunshine followed by rain and snow and sleet. There are no holidays in sight, and summer feels more like a nice idea than an impending reality. Maybe we all need to feel Irish for a day, to be jolly and drunk and good-naturedly trotting around in atrocious green costumes for no apparent rhyme or reason. Maybe we all need to eat potatoes and drink Guinness; laugh too loudly, get mad quickly, and end the night happily unaware of our ancestral percentages.

P.S. Stereotypes are harmful, and if you don't understand that I'm joking, we cannot be friends. Here's a nice article about Irish people, and here's a list of Irish-owned businesses to support, and here's a gumbo recipe, just because.


Sarah Rose

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