For many college students and Americans in general, St. Patrick’s Day brings to mind the color green, mischievous leprechauns and heavy drinking. But for me, this day is so much more. In 1927, Mary Joyce disembarked at Ellis Island after a long journey from County Galway, Ireland, in search of the American Dream.
On St. Patrick's Day, the women in my family look up to Mary, my great-grandmother, and while I never met her, she is remembered as hardworking and loving; she started out as a maid before raising seven girls. Other than small details such as these, not all that much is known about my family history, thanks to unasked questions, lost or adopted family members and forgotten answers. As I plan to be a History and English major, these mysteries plague me often; I want to know the history—the stories—of my ancestors! Growing up in a community where first and second-generation Americans knew their heritage inside and out while others could trace their lineage directly to the Mayflower, I never knew quite where I stood. I clung to my grandmother’s claims that her mother was Irish and her own grandparents on her father’s side came straight from Italy.
Most of my ancestors whose stories I know came to America within generations that I can count on one hand. They came in search of a better life and faced hardship when they settled here. Thanks to genetic testing taken by a variety of family members, I now know that I’m nearly 30% Irish/British; I’m only around 14% Southern European, which I was shocked and a bit disappointed to discover since I often use my Italian heritage to justify my obsessive love of pasta. On the other hand, I was pleasantly surprised to find out that I’m 25% Eastern European and 16% Ashkenazi Jewish. However, I know very little about the cultures of these ethnic groups and I am eager to start some intense Internet research.
However, I know immigrants from my genetic demographics faced societal struggles in their homelands and discrimination upon their American arrival in the early 1900s. Fleeing famine and persecution, European, Asian, African and Latin American immigrants arrive in the U.S. even now in search of the American Dream. Issues of legality aside, the pursuit of happiness is a desire possessed by all.
Today, we face an uncertain time in American politics. People of different races, ethnicities and heritages are finding it difficult to ascertain where they belong. However, minorities are growing in power and their voices are growing in volume, and the U.S. at large needs to remember that it is our country’s internal and intrinsic differences that make it such a special place. Famously, Ralph Ellison wrote in his novel Invisible Man, “America is woven of many strands. I would recognize them and let it so remain. Our fate is to become one, and yet many. This is not prophecy, but description.”
This St. Patrick’s Day, I’m going to wear green and rock out to Ed Sheeran’s “Galway Girl” because I see my family in these American traditions. I am proud to celebrate my Irish heritage as a reminder that all people in America should embrace and learn from their pasts and that differences should be celebrated. Our differences are what make life interesting, and even in the thousands of different customs practiced around the world, we can find similarities that remind us of our common humanity. Instead of searching for our own advantages or hiding from our pasts, we should appreciate every struggle and triumph that got us to where we are today.
But there is still work to be done, and the only way we can empower our future is by embracing our past. I encourage you to recognize your roots and discover the stories that comprise your family tree—as the Celtic Tree of Life reminds us, everything is interconnected, so we must go back to move forward. Celebrate where you come from, on St. Patrick’s Day as well as every other day—I do, and I hope my great-grandma would be proud.
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