I discovered a kinsman recently.
John Jeremiah Sullivan (and is that not a grand and wonderful name!) wrote a piece for the “New York Times Magazine” entitled, My Debt to Ireland, that captures the uniquely Irish sense of connection to an unknown land and unknown past. He’s not really a kinsman, of course, except that he’s Irish, he’s a writer, and he’s named Sullivan, and anyone with a drop of Irish blood is automatically related to everyone else with the same drop of green in their veins, and any two people with a connection to the name of Sullivan are obviously even more closely related, and since his family’s occupation by birthright is writer (his father was the sportswriter Mike Sullivan) and my family’s occupation by birthright is also that of writer (my mother was a writer, and her father, Mark Sullivan, was one of the most famous writers in American in the early part of the twentieth century), why, we’re practically brothers. Or at least cousins.
I say uniquely Irish, but I don’t know if that tendency really is unique to the Irish. Perhaps other American immigrants—Ukrainians, say, or Koreans, or Norwegians—also cling to a romanticized past, but no one writes about it or talks about it or thinks about it or romanticizes it as much as the Irish. We, the descendents of a cruelly oppressed and marvelously resilient and courageous people, tend to worship the past in all its forms—ancestors, history, religion, superstition, geography, literature, music, art, pain, loss, love, hate, triumph—and John Jeremiah Sullivan captures that stubborn refusal to forget in his opening paragraph.
His blood memory of Ireland begins as a child, with his father reading James Joyce’s short story, “The Dead,” out loud to him in a basement office in Indiana reeking with the smell of cigarettes and with cat urine that has soaked into the stuffing of an old chair his father won’t throw away, “…because it belonged to his father.”
That is so Irish on so many levels it’s mind-boggling. Who else but an Irishman would:
Read out loud to a six or seven year old boy one of the most sophisticated and subtle short stories ever written?
Read it with such delight in the language that certain words and phrases would stick in the boy’s mind decades later?
Write his own stories in a basement office reeking with cigarette smoke and cat urine?
Desperately hang on to a ruined chair because it evoked the memory of the beloved dead?
Weave a mythology of a distant place and vanished time to small boy?
Unconsciously, perhaps, imitate even the externals of one of Ireland’s greatest and most revered writers, the author of the story being read, by squinting with his one good eye at the page in front of him (both James Joyce and Mike Sullivan were blind in one eye and had bad vision in the other)?
I too was raised on that mythology, so that people who died forty years or even a hundred years before I was born are as real to me as people I see and speak to regularly. Frequently more real, and always more colorful.
Consider the following anecdote which was passed on to me in different permutations and with different protagonists. (Here I have conflated my mother’s version with the one in my grandfather’s autobiography, “The Education of an American,” but it would work as well in almost any generation from the Potato Famine to World War Two.)
In 1903, after graduating from Harvard, my grandfather went to Ireland for the first time and took a walking trip through the southwestern hills where both his father and his mother had been born: County Cork and Bantry Bay, Kanturk and Killarney, Ballyvourney and Banteer. He was armed with letters of introduction to various relatives on both sides and in some small village found a lawyer who was a distant relative of his mother’s, who told him of another, closer relative living nearby. She was ninety-six, but still sharp as a fox, and the lawyer offered to take him to meet her.
Whitewashed cottage, thatched roof, peat fire, the old woman standing in the doorway, erect and vigorous, staff in her hand, ruddy as a winter apple, blue eyes piercing and shrewd, as the lawyer launched into a lengthy genealogy: so-and-so begat so-and-so who married so-and-so and begat so-and-so who had a brother who begat so-and-so who moved to America and begat so-and-so… And though it all the old woman, silent, looking my grandfather up and down, until at last the lawyer ground to a halt. Then she looked my grandfather in the eye.
“Aye. I have ye now. Ye’re one of thim Haleys. There was always bad blood in thim Haleys.”
And the door was slammed shut.
My mother’s and grandfather’s evident delight in the incident was greatly increased by the fact that nowhere, on either side of my great-grandfather’s or great-grandmother’s families was there any connection of any kind to anyone named Haley. And that’s a shame. Wouldn’t it be a fine and romantic thing to be linked directly to some dark and bloody moment in the past, the glint of moonlight on a knife blade, a scream in the dark, a stolen horse, a stolen wife, a hanging? Perhaps that’s just the Irish in me, but that bad blood and that fierce old lady resonate in my imagination in ways that are more intriguing to me than any reality.