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I Don’t Feel Particularly Irish

This weekend, the city will again be awash in green. But where’s that Northern orange?

Photo: Chicago Tribune

Most of my ancestors came to this country from Ireland. Still, I’ve never felt particularly Irish — at least not the kind of Irish that’s celebrated on St. Patrick’s Day in Chicago. I’ve never felt much in common with the Daleys, or the Joyces, or the crowd at the annual South Side St. Patrick’s Day Parade.

That’s because my forebears — the McClellands, the Allens, and the Welches — were Irish Protestants who emigrated from Ulster, in the north of Ireland, in the 18th Century, settling in the Appalachian Mountains from Virginia down to Georgia. “Irish American” has become synonymous with “Irish Catholic,” but that’s far from the whole story of the Irish in this country. The Irish flag, after all, has a green stripe, for the Catholic community, and an orange stripe, for the Protestant community. Both are essential to the makeup of Ireland, and both should be recognized on St. Patrick’s Day.

One reason I’ve probably never felt Irish is that my own people rejected the label. When they first arrived here on ships from Belfast, they did call themselves Irish. But when Irish Catholics flocked to big cities in the 19th Century, Irish Protestants sought an identity to differentiate themselves.

First, they called themselves “Scots-Irish,” a reference to the fact that Ulster had simply been a way station between Scotland and America. Then they began calling themselves nothing at all. On census forms, the Irish of Appalachia are more likely to describe their ethnicity as “American” than any other group. Personally, I’d like my Irishness back.

The fact is, most Americans with Irish ancestry are Protestant, not Catholic. If you thought John F. Kennedy was the first Irish-American president, you would be wrong. That was Andrew Jackson, whose parents emigrated from County Antrim. He was the first of nearly a dozen presidents with Irish ancestry, including James Buchanan, Chester A. Arthur, Grover Cleveland, William McKinley, and Barack Obama.

Irish Catholics and Irish Protestants have historically been warring communities, from the conquests of Oliver Cromwell to the Battle of the Boyne in 1690 to the modern-day Troubles in Northern Ireland. But Catholic-Protestant unity is essential to the most dearly held goal of Irish nationalists: an island united under one flag. Nationalists want to convince Ulster’s Protestants that they are better off as 20 percent of a United Ireland than 2 percent of a United Kingdom.

When I visited Northern Ireland in 2002, I met a Protestant who felt that way. He was a fan of the Irish national rugby team, which included players from the North and the South. He also loved Riverdance, and Irish jigs. “I don’t want to be British,” he told me. “I’m Irish. Any time the majority of people in Northern Ireland decide they want to become part of Ireland, that’s fine with me.”

The poet William Butler Yeats, a Protestant who served as an Irish senator after the country gained its independence from Britain (and my choice for the greatest Irishman), warned his colleagues that governing Ireland “by Catholic ideas and Catholic ideas alone” would prevent the island from ever uniting. During a debate on a bill to prohibit divorce, he told them “you will never get the North” if ecclesiastical law became the law of the land.

One of the reasons The Quiet Man is my favorite movie about Ireland (other than the fight scene that’s interrupted by visits to several taverns) is that one of the supporting characters, the Reverend Mr. Playfair, is a minister of the Church of Ireland — the Protestant denomination to which Yeats belonged. The film captured the diversity and complexity of Ireland far more than the like Darby O’Gill and the Little People or Waking Ned Devine.

In Canada, where Irish Protestant identity is much stronger than it is in the United States, the Orange Order marches through the streets every July 12. They bang drums to celebrate the Protestant victory over the Catholics at the Battle of the Boyne, just like their cousins in Northern Ireland do each summer.

This, I admit, feels like an overcorrection. I don’t want a triumphalist Irish Protestant holiday to compete with the Irish Catholic holiday. That would feel un-American. This country is a place to set aside Old World grudges and become a new, united people.

In the 1990s, I read a Tribune story about a man named Patrick Durkin, who was principal of the K-through-8 Goudy School in Uptown. At the time, the neighborhood was a hub for refugees from the Balkan Wars. One day, the story read, a group of Bosnian parents came into Durkin’s office to object to the fact that a Serb was teaching their children. He sat them down and told them, “In Ireland, where my people came from, Protestants and Catholics killed each other. But not here. In America, even old enemies learn to love each other like brothers.”

If St. Patrick’s Day, at least in America, is a day to celebrate Irishness, let it be a holiday to celebrate both stripes — green and orange. Sure, Patrick was a Catholic saint. But he also lived a thousand years before Protestantism existed. And after all, his saint’s day has been thoroughly secularized, celebrated in taverns and streets, not churches.

So kiss me, I’m Irish.

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