Growing Up Irish Under False Pretenses

With a surname of “Kerr” you probably aren’t too shocked to learn that I’m part Irish. What was shocking to me was when I learned the whole story about my ethnicity.

I grew up in blue-collar West Mifflin, the daughter of a steel family. We were Kerr’s and Pryor’s – and everyone told me that we were Irish. It wasn’t a huge theme, more of a general background thread. My brother’s March 17 birthday just added to the allure. Everyone wanted to “back” to Ireland one day and when I met some real Irish lads in college, my family was quite a titter.

Ethnic heritage wasn’t a huge deal, but I do remember everyone emphasizing over and over that my aunt (she married my Dad’s brother) was English – and had been raised in Africa (note, no one ever told me *where* in Africa and I was too young & naive & indoctrinated to think I should ask). I suspect that they were “othering” her, but I thought it sounded quite romantic and wondered how she ended up in Ohio. No one talked about it. My Dad’s sister married a man who was of German descent. My great-aunt had married an actual German who emigrated to the US before WWII. When these stories were told, everyone carefully emphasized dates (BEFORE WWII) or other facts.  No one ever explained why.

Fast forward a few decades and I start doing some genealogical research for fun. The illusion of being Irish took a few years to fall apart, but oh boy it did and how.

First, I learned that my grandmother’s father’s family had emigrated from Germany around 1853. Then I found out that her mother’s family had no history prior to 1920 so claims that she was from the “French side of Alsace-Lorraine” were probably exaggerated. On my grandfather’s side came the big doozy – the Kerr’s were Irish but they were Protestant. I found the marriage documents in the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh for John Kerr (my g-g-g-grandfather) being exempted to marry  Butler (she was Irish Catholic.) Whoa Whoa Whoa. Add to that the fact that my grandfather’s mother’s family was mostly German with a bit of unknown and that made my father 1/4 German Catholic, 1/4 Irish (split between Protestant and Catholic and 1/2 unknown (but probably not Irish.)

This Kerr family is Protestant and she's German! Whoa!
This Kerr family is Protestant and she’s German! Whoa!

My grandmother was really horrified and I didn’t understand why – she was more upset about the German ethnic facts than the fact that her great-grandfather was born out-of-wedlock or that due to some distant relations marrying cousins (in the 1700’s in Germany), she was her own sixth cousin. I was really puzzled because being Irish didn’t seem that big of a deal.

My father and I had a long discussion about it and he helped me understand what it was like growing up in the US during World War II. He explained to me how he and his schoolmates were taught to hate Germans and hate Asian people. He talked quite a bit about how he had to work through that – it was easier for him with Germans because he adored his Uncle Leon and could reconcile himself to there being good Germans, but he had never met anyone who was Asian or Asian-American until I went to college. And my grandmother had been raised to hate Germans during two wars. She was raised to hate part of her own self, so she simply distanced herself from it and redefined herself as Irish.

Now when I say I understand, I don’t understand in the sense that I believed it was acceptable to hate an entire race of people – I understood in the sense that a 90-year-old woman wasn’t necessarily going to unpack that in the way that my then 60-year-old father was willing to attempt. After all, I hadn’t even realized how racism impacted my life until I was well into my college years and it was years before I had any tools to tackle that.

For the sake of clarity, my mother knew her family was Irish, German and English – but everyone claimed the Englishman had settled in Ireland first. Well, okay so that was a little more accurate except for the last part. Her father was all English. Her mother was half German and half Irish. We think. See? My mother took it much better than my grandmother – she told me that as she didn’t like the German relatives anyway, there was no reason to adjust her way of thinking. LOL.

Whew - a legitimate Irish Catholic (Regina Gallagher) who married a Catholic German, Michael Kramer.
Whew – a legitimate Irish Catholic (Regina Gallagher) who married a Catholic German, Michael Kramer.

Anyway, when St. Patrick’s Day rolls around I don’t really feel anything at all. I spent 6 months of my senior year in college with 3 Irish lads and learned a lot about their actual culture (as opposed to what we are taught via parades, etc.) They did not romanticize it at all. In fact, they took great delight in telling me stories that would shock and awe me, some historical and some modern. Ireland didn’t seem very magical and carefree to me. It didn’t seem like a bad place, but after I learned about their neutral stance in WWII – I felt the last veil of rewriting my history disappear.

So I have this huge list of Germanic places that my family is from. I’ve researched my way around all sorts of information, but never that. I can’t really tell you why. Our family for the most part left Germany in the mid-1800s so there was no realistic culpability for the rise of the Third Reich. And, frankly, I feel more connected to and horrified by the fact that we Americans established our own internment camps and turned away Jewish refugees. I can completely see that happening given the current debate over immigration.

I suspect that while I was not raised with openly anti-German rhetoric, I was raised to believe that certain types of people were better than others. Catholics were better than Protestants. Whites were better than blacks. Married respectable families were better than single mothers. Wealth was better than poverty. Appearances were better than ugly realities. And for some reason, Irish was better than well, anything else we could have been.

What I do feel is sort of rudderless – no ethnicity to call my own. I don’t really like the version of Ireland that gets painted by homophobic parade organizers (not Pittsburgh – yeah) or excessive drinking or “The Quiet Man” at all. I feel very alienated from my German heritage and no real sense of where to begin.

These are not real problems, but ethnic holidays do create a nostalgic longing to belong. I belong in Pittsburgh. My family has been here in some cases back to 1800 and in Pennsylvania even longer. I don’t want to travel to Ireland, but I’d like to go to Lycoming County where my grandfather’s entire family seems to have originated (back to 1730 if you can believe it.)

I may have put some time into exploring the perceived homophobia of St. Patrick’s Day Parades – but the truth is that my family has been in this Commonwealth for nearly 300 years and I’m still a second class citizen. That has nothing to do with being Irish or German and everything to do with being American.

lycoming