An Essay About St. Patrick’s Day and My Not-So Irish-American Cultural Heritage

Growing up in a working class Pittsburgh suburb, I knew two things to be true about my family – we were Roman Catholic and we were Irish (with a little German.) We were Irish Catholics and celebrated St. Patrick’s Day robustly. St. Patrick’s Day is also my younger brother’s birthday. Robustly meant lots of green and lots of booze for adults. Not really anything culturally Irish in hindsight.

Fast forward to 2017 and I can tell you that most of what I knew to be true about this Irish Catholic heritage was a big fat lie. At least half of my Irish relatives are Protestant and from Northern Ireland. Most of my Catholic relatives were German. The few actual Catholic Irish folks were the embodiment of every terrible stereotype you can imagine.

Note – I am making generalizations about my Germanic heritage and my Scots/Scots-Irish heritage to illustrate my point. And keep this concise. I’m also focusing on cultural identity, not genetic identity.

It began when I started researching the Kerrs.  I contacted the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh to find the relevant records and was genuinely shocked to learn that my 2x great-grandfather, John K Kerr, was NOT Catholic. Not even a little bit. My 2x great-grandmother, Sadie Butler, was Catholic and Irish. She received a dispensation to marry him. Whoa. Right out of the gate, the Kerr mythology takes a hit.

I haven’t learned much about this John’s father’s line – I can only go back one more generation on his father’s side and have no clue beyond that. His mother’s family were of English descent and possibly Catholic, as well as Scots-Irish Protestants. However that played out, by the time John K Kerr married Sadie Butler, he was not Catholic.

Now Sadie’s family, the Butlers, were uber Irish Catholics from Galway.

John was buried from home with no mention of  funeral mass. Sadie was buried with a funeral mass at Holy Cross Church. Three of their four adult children were buried with a funeral mass (my direct ancestor was not!) in Pittsburgh. So their son John Kelso Kerr II was probably raised Catholic by his mother, but did not have a funeral mass.

1/16 Irish Catholic and 1/16 mixed lot of English-Irish-Scots of Protestant and Catholic origins.

That John Kelso Kerr married Edna Lescallett. Edna’s father was descended from French Huguenots who settled in Maryland and English Protestants mixed with Welsh Presbyterians. He himself, Sylvester Lescallett, was part of the United Evangelical Church in Birmingham.

Edna’s mother, Anna, was a Gottheld. Her parents emigrated from Germany. The religious affiliation is a little unclear as it seems some of Gottheld children were Catholic, others Presbyterian. There are other examples of this generation, and this family, rewriting their histories. The part that is fascinating is that I have a copy of Edna’s baptismal certificate in German.  I always assumed it was Roman Catholic, but perhaps it was from her father’s church? Hmmmm.

So 1/16 French/English mixtures of Protestants and 1/16 German mostly Protestant.

If you are keeping track, that’s one-quarter my family and we are at less than 1/8 Irish and only 1/16 Irish Catholic plus some other Catholics.

On my paternal grandmother’s side, its more straightforward. Her mother was solidly Irish Catholic, but not apparently baptized Catholic. Her family epitomized the stereotypes of drunken, brawling, bawdy urban working class Catholics. She grew up in a shack on a dirt path in the middle of Pittsburg (no h) during the Gilded Age. Her future husband was half German and half Scots Presbyterian. No one ended up Catholic, some ended up Presbyterian and some Methodist (?) Important to note that we did not know that my great-grandmother was so Irish Catholic. I discovered that doing my family research. We had no idea what her ethnic or personal background was.

Let’s flip over to my maternal line.

Her maiden name was Pryor. The Pryor/Prior line came from Scotland, settling in Lycoming County around 1815. William Pryor married into the Billman family which reaches far back into pre-colonization times with the very earliest waves of German Protestants getting land grants in what eventually became Eastern Pennsylvania.

His wife Caroline Ritter is like my gold star colonizing relative – so far. The Ritters landed in Philadelphia in 1736 from Germany. Not Catholic. Caroline is also descended from Englishman, Robert Morris. The one for whom Robert Morris University is named. A founding father. Has a Wikipedia page.  Note that his wife, Mary White, is renowned for being a sophisticated hostess at age 20 and hiring only white servants in the 1770s. No mention if they were Irish, but she was not.

So James B Pryor gifted me with being 1/32 Scots and 1/32 German. No Catholics. Caroline Ritter gives me mostly German, a wee bit English and no Catholicism.

Huh.

My Pryor 2x great married a Southern woman named Harriet Belle Hackney. I am still sorting through her lineage and story, but her family on both sides were part of the wave of what we know as Scotch-Irish settlers who came into the US through Pennsylvania and moved down into the Appalachian portions of North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia – they were part of what we know as hillbillies. They were decidedly not Irish Catholic, but more independent Protestant churches.

They arrived between 1650-1700, they moved to the Southern mountains. And they owned human beings. That’s a topic I plan to address in more detail in another post about my 2x great-grandmother. But I feel it should not be shied away from, especially in a post about St. Patrick’s Day and Irish heritage. Some of my most Irish ancestors enslaved other human beings and all of us profited from an economy based on slavery. Note: Irish people were not enslaved in the United States. Also note: Irish history has its own atrocities that we should understand in this context.

My maternal grandmother’s family is also straightforward if not unique. My great-grandfather was 1/4 Irish Catholic and 3/4 German Catholic.  My great-grandmother was 100% German Catholic that I know of. Some of her maternal line is still shrouded in mystery.

So here’s what I know about my eight great-grandparents:

John K Kerr – 1/2 Irish Catholic and 1/2 mixed lot of English-Irish-Scots of Protestant and Catholic origins.

Edna Lescallett Kerr – 1/2 French/English mixtures of Protestants and 1/2 German mostly Protestant.

Gilbert W Remley – 1/2 German Protestants and 1/2 Scots Presbyterian

Jane M Rice Remley – 100% Irish Catholic

Marion W Pryor gifted me with being 1/4 Scots and 3/4 German. No Catholics

Harriet B Hackney – 100%  ‘Scotch-Irish’ all Protestant

Charles E Kramer – 1/4 Irish Catholic and 3/4 German Catholic

Anna M. Bliss Kramer – 100% German Catholic

I think that makes me 21% Irish Catholic, 43% German (both Catholic and Protestant), and 28% Scots and/or Scots-Irish.

Even if you factor in the persistent myth that everyone German is really from Alsace-Lorraine and really French (I have actual Alsatians in my tree from Butler County), and allow for the genetic fluidity between England and Scotland and Ireland as one’s ethnicity may not reflect one’s nationality, this is not what I was brought up to believe my culture to be.

What you end up with is that I am not really Irish Catholic at all. I inherited Catholic culture from my mother’s mother who was mostly German. The Irish part of me is really about Northern Ireland and Ulster and things about which I am not incredibly familiar, to my dismay.

So why did I think I was Irish? Obviously, someone fed me that perception. A lot of it stemmed from anti-German sentiment in the 20th century. I have no idea why people thought Remley surname needed to be Irish-cized, but there you have it. I don’t know why my grandfather Kerr didn’t know that he wasn’t Irish Catholic, but perhaps it was because his father died young and he was mostly raised by his mother’s people. Maybe it just never came up b/c his father was a louse? Maybe people didn’t fetishize Irish identity as much as they do now because they could just get loaded for no special reason whatsoever.

Irish American Pittsburgh
Newspaper caricature of my 3x great aunt Mary Campbell McCafferty (1857-1910) and several other members of the family listed in the article were having a rowdy drinking party in her ‘Disorderly House’ on Basin Alley in 1898. The Pittsburgh Press
(Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania)
01 Aug 1898, Mon • Page 6

I suspect my 100% Irish-American Catholic great-grandmother hid her roots because they were traumatic. Her personal story is very sad and her reaction was escapism – she embodied the contradictions of white flight to the suburb. She was fleeing her own identity as much as anything. That doesn’t make it okay and it didn’t make her okay. But it does explain why she never shared any of this.

And no one EVER spoke about my Southern relatives who were from Northern Ireland and also slave owners. I’m pretty sure my mother didn’t actually have that information, but I’m not so sure about her parents or her other siblings.

And in between these places of origin, these ties to my European homelands, in between are many, many terrible things that I’m not proud of. I’m not proud that my Scots-Irish ancestors enslaved Africans and African-Americans to build their own lives. I’m not proud that my Alsatian and other German ancestors colonized Pennsylvania with no regard for the people who already lived here. I’m not proud of my Irish relatives who beat the hell out of their wives, stole, ran slumhouses, and supported a horrifying Catholic church. I’m not proud that one generation of immigrants turned against another in spite of their common ancestry or their shared identity as immigrants.

But I do recognize that all of these things combined created the life that I have lived and the world that I live in. They are as much of the foundation of privilege as the positive contributions my ancestors made.

So I’m also not proud of people today who cherry-pick their heritage. I’m not proud of people who don’t connect the dots between those who came before and where we are now as individuals. I’m not proud of people who are stupid enough to think the discrimination Irish immigrants experienced in the United States is on par with slavery. And I’m not proud that the celebration of Irish culture we call St. Patrick’s Day is a hairsbreadth away from a white power celebration.

Why does this bother me so much? In part, this is due to the traumatic impact the multi-generational lies have had on me personally. Lying, denial, rewriting history, all part of the family legacy. Then there’s the impact of alcohol culture, the firsthand exposure to the sins of the Catholic church, and the Americanization of Irish culture to prop up a mythology of whiteness that seems acceptable.

I also feel stripped of any real connection to Irish culture. That, at least, is something I can address myself as an adult. I can learn about my Northern Ireland heritage without the filters of my family.

St. Patrick’s Day is like the High Holy Day of all of this. It is annoying to witness, but it is also sad because I know that someone in Pittsburgh – a woman or many women are being sexually assaulted while drunk, that bitter brain cells are being pumped full of distorted notions of whiteness and killing off the reasonable cells, and that St. Patrick himself could not fix this mess.

Maybe my objections are more rooted in my genetic resistance to Irish-American identity that I thought? Maybe that’s why I found so much familiarity in Brian O’Neill’s Paris of Appalachia and J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy even though I didn’t really like the latter book? (Note: Vance is a very distant cousin to some of my Scots-German cousins)

I end up with several questions – how did my own family histories get distorted? what is my actual Irish cultural legacy? what is Irish culture itself – a legacy of “the cluster of identities we refer to as Irish in the 21st century are born of trauma and imperial domination: and underneath the rosy cheeked rebelliousness lies a history of trauma that beggars belief.” That’s a quote from my friend Feargal who himself is Irish, not Irish-American.

So my own experience of trauma and oppression as this woman with ancestral ties to Ireland and Scotland is actually an accurate reflection of how colonialism manipulated a fictional identity of Irish-American culture reduced to a yearly feast day with a parade, lots of alcohol, and so forth. If so, does that mean my fondness for soda bread and Shamrock shakes is the exact outcome desired by those who don’t want me to ask these sorts of questions about my ancestors, including my recent ancestors?’

My questions led me to this website and a documentary series about Ireland. It makes me think a lot about the overlapping issues of Irish-American identity and white identity. Understanding my own identity as white woman of some Irish-descent helps me better understand my own family story and how to heal from the distortions as well as understand how that has damaged so many others.

I’ll give Feargal the final word

IMHO the colonisers in our heritage have very little for us except warnings. IMHO we need to build bridges back to ideas that truly help us, not this “I am the descendant of some cat who figured shamrocks were cool in 1880”

If Ireland can be a foul place where fictions are created that depress and defeat us, then why can it not be a place for white people to revise these narratives and read better stories?

Amen, brother.


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