(To the right is a group of Irish stepdancers performing in line, dressed in embroidered outfits, with clog shoes…Courtesy of Dreamstime.com)
“To True Irish, All of March is St. Patrick‘s Day”
As Colleen Kelly, I’m predominantly Irish, with one full quarter being English. However, I was raised to identify with the Kelly clan (don’t spell it with an “e” for that signifies an aberrant strain) and to sing out the praise of my forebears, loudly. I‘ve done that all my life and ramped up that homage when my own children arrived.
My paternal grandparents were both from Ireland, even to the point one of them (my grandmother) attempted to bring a sack of potatoes back across the border on a visit to the mother country (to prove ostensibly that potatoes could grow elsewhere). Customs prevented her from completing her mission, but “Who does that?” (except an inveterate pureblood).
She and grandfather had 5 children (a small brood by Catholic standards): My father was their youngest.
My grandparents on my mother’s side were basically responsible for the Anglo corruption of the bloodline. My mother’s Irish father migrated across the sea to England after his first wife died, bringing his two children with him to get the work that eluded him in his home country. When my mother became old enough, she took a job in a London pub and it was there where she met her future husband, my grandfather. After some time, they migrated to America, settling in that smallest state in the Northeast, Rhode Island, where grandfather worked as night watchman at a mill. They went on to have 15 children, 13 of whom lived. My mother was their oldest girl.
When my Irish/English mother married my Irish father, they began their family (of 4 children), but we only ever celebrated our Irish roots.
On St. Patrick’s Day, we went to school dressed in color variations of green, regarding the Irish sporting the color orange as renegades who had no real connection to the Old Sod. After all, orange is to “Green Irish” what red is to a charging bull. As such, we considered them mutant versions of the Real Thing.
I named my first child “Kerry” for the county in Ireland from which our ancestors hailed and honored my ancestry in a different way with my second child, by enrolling her (when she got to be eight) in Irish step-dancing, the rigorous footstepping made famous, from 1993 on, with “Riverdance.” It meant a punishing schedule of rehearsals and shows–especially throughout the month of March, when dancers regaled customers in pubs, bars, and the numerous Elks lodges dotting the state. At those times, the social climate of those places mimicked pubs in Ireland, where whole families gathered (babies included).
As such, it was perfectly reasonable to see dancers banging away in their black clog shoes (they resemble the former chunky footware of nuns). The celebration went for the whole month of March (not merely St. Patrick’s Day–March 17th.) Why? Thirty-one days was considered entirely appropriate for displaced Irish to pay homage to the mother land (See the impact Ireland had on Rhode Island via the link below).
Yes, in that period, my daughter and I frequented all the watering holes, she in her proper dance costume of off-white embroidered material, pin signifying tribal affiliation, bright green sash, etc., while I stood about, poised to transport to the next destination where they were to perform for a new crowd.
Some years into her Irish step-dancing career, she competed outside of Boston, bordering the famous Irish Southie district. We spent whole Saturdays there, in one of the convention halls, as she performed before panels of judges, while I cheered her on or read books and magazines in the down-time. It was no small investment of time and money.
We spent countless occasions at parades, too, where I stood in the cold bleak March drizzle watching her pass along the parade route, she and her little band of dancers, her red hair aflame against her milky-white costume.
When she got older and said she was “done with” Irish step-dancing, I never pressed her to continue because frankly, I couldn’t see a future in it (the only ones we saw doing this as adults were the ones who ran dance schools). And so, she hung up her costume and her dance shoes, but we never forgot those years: They figure prominently in our memories.
A fellow teacher tried to buy my daughter’s costume from me (it‘s costly) for her own daughter, but I never parted with it, for it represented too significant a part of her upbringing. Today, it hangs in the cedar closet in our home, a testament to all those occasions when we resurrected our strong connection to our ancestry…times when she banged her way through the state on clogs all through the month of March.
In hindsight, it wasn’t too heavy a commitment, for as any Irish know: March goes by too quickly, even if that month produces weather that’s raw and uncompromising. Our extended celebration was the least we could do for a people who did so much for us.
Click below to discover the lead ethnic group in Rhode Island (not who you’d probably suspect) and note, too, what group will eclipse their growth rate in years ahead –sure sign of a national trend…
(And now, click on the following link to see the final dance of Michael Flatley (of “Riverdance fame),” who now produces and stars in “Lord of the Dance”…)….