John Feehery: Speaking Engagements

What County Are You From?

Posted on March 17, 2017
“What county are you from?” my father asked the waitress in his faux Irish brogue.

“Cook” she replied drily.

That story would set my brothers off in convulsions of laughter.

In the early-80’s, my Dad went through an Irish renaissance.  He was dating an Irish girl and he would attend Noraid rallies, and he would get his Irish up.

His forebears came from Ireland around the same time the Kennedy’s forebears came here.  Which is to say, a long time ago.

And like the Kennedys, who congregated in an Irish enclave in Boston, the Feeherys congregated in an Irish enclave in Chicago.

Being Irish means having to always justify your Irish roots.   The first question, of course, is do you have any family there?  The second is what county are you from?

These become especially important questions on St. Patrick’s Day.

Everybody is Irish on this most sainted of days, but it is better if you have family there, and much, much better if all four of your grandparents came from there.  My wife, Kerry Fennelly Feehery, love to rub that in.

The Irish in Ireland look at all of this with some sense of bemusement.

They like America and Americans, of course, up to a point.  But they are horrified, at times, by our politics and by some aspects of our culture.

Irish culture is an evolving thing.  And like everything else in life, it is very complicated.

So much of the Irish renaissance was created by Irish Protestants, not Irish Catholics.  Jonathan Swift was an Irish Protestant.  Oscar Wilde was an Irish Protestant.  William Butler Yeats, that greatest of Irish poets, was an Irish Protestant.

But if you ask most Irishmen at the local pub in the South Side of Chicago or in Southie Boston, if a Protestant could ever truly be Irish, they would smirk and shake their head no.

The central problem that divided Ireland for 800 years came in figuring out what the definition of a true Irishman really was.

Was he somebody who lived in the Pale, attended the Church of Ireland and had the resources to research the ancient history of Eire.  Or was it the superstitious, papist, Gaelic-speaking potato eater from Galway who barely made it to America during the worst parts of Great Famine.

Being Irish means never forgetting where your people came from or what your grudges are.

Today, blessed by favorable tax rates, an association with the European Union, an educated and talented work force, lots and lots of investment from American companies, and relative peace in the North, Ireland is prosperous again.

The Celtic Tiger had a rough spell for a while, thanks to the collapse of some huge financial institutions and the insistence by German banks that the country pay its debts, but by buckling its bootstraps and by pressing ahead with tough love and sound economic policy, the Irish came through on the other side in better shape than most.

Being Irish used to mean having an abiding fear that any prosperity would disappear any moment, but surviving the Great Recession has given them a sense of confidence.  As Winston Churchill once said, there is nothing more exhilarating than being shot at an missed.

The Irish in Ireland are in a different place than the Irish in America.

The bonds that tie the two nations are as strong as ever, but the relationship has matured.

The Irish now teach us a few things about economics.  They are the ones with the low corporate rate, the open economy, the better welfare system.  They are the ones who believe in trade, believe in immigration and emigration, believe in the power of globalization.  They are the ones that have put aside superstition and the errant belief in false idols.  And they are the ones that have to teach us about America and its exceptionalism.

America is a special place for the Irish because it is here where they came to prosper.  They were called baboons and criminals and subhuman when my family came here in the 1840’s and 1850’s and on my mother’s side later, in the 1920’s.

They weren’t greeted as fun people to have a drink with.  They were hounded and hated and discriminated against.  Paddywagons were created to throw the drunken Irish in jail.  An amendment to the Constitution was passed to stop the Irish from drinking.  And when Al Smith ran for President in 1928, he was defeated because he was an Irish Catholic.

But at least Smith got the nomination.  And still the Irish persisted. They persisted up the ranks of the Democratic Party and now they also dominate the Republican Party.

Yes, I would call Mike Pence, Sean Spicer, Steve Bannon and Paul Ryan  proof of the domination of the Irish in the Republican Party.  Throw in Mitch McConnell and you get the sense that the Irish of both faiths have finally found the promised land.

The Irish succeed in politics not because they are Irish and Irish only.  They succeed because they like to take on a expanded definition of who is Irish, especially on St. Patrick’s Day.

They believe firmly in the one-drop rule.  If you have one-drop of Irish blood, it’s good enough for me.  And if you want to substitute a Guinness or a shot of Jameson’s for that drop of blood, that works too.

No other holiday of any ethnic group is so welcoming to other ethnic groups as is St. Patrick’s Day.

We are all Irish on St. Patrick’s Day.  Some of us a bit more so, of course.

So on this day of days, let’s toast all of the Irish and all of those who want to be.  The rest of you can have fun at work.