From Ireland to Philadelphia: the unknown story of my ancestors

About six generations ago, my ancestors crossed the Atlantic from Ireland to Philadelphia. Well over a century later on Saint Patrick’s Day, I cannot stop wondering about my great-great-great grandparents.

Only in the past few months have I realized the privilege I have to know from where my ancestors came. Being African-Americans descended from slaves, many of my friends do not know their heritage. Due to the encouragement of one of my friends, I am now attempting to take advantage of the knowledge I have.

Because my family has been in the United States for so long and has married across cultures, among Irish, French and perhaps one or two Germans on my mom’s side and between English and Scottish on my dad’s, I have a difficult time resonating with my ancestors’ culture, however. I cannot resonate with it because I know nothing about it. It seems so distant and apart from me.

Before I started to know myself better, I simply felt “American.” This was largely influenced by my dad’s side of the family, the side I saw the most. They are incredibly patriotic, celebrating national holidays with the national anthem, Wiffle ball and pie. They are proud to be Americans, and while they are White, most of them do not embrace or even consider their European heritage, to my knowledge. My immediate family has never encouraged me to embrace my roots either, making it difficult for me to explore them.

Unfortunately, my grandparents are either growing forgetful or are already dead, so my chances of learning more about my ancestry are fading away.

My Grandpop on my mom’s side is the main person I can bring to mind who seems somewhat interested in his heritage, as demonstrated by his bookshelves full of Irish and a few French books and his past endeavors to look into our family ancestry. I learned from him that I am related to a famous Irish poet, though that man is not well known in America now.

I am primarily drawn to my Irish roots, and I often wonder about my family’s history. I try to go back in time and imagine the events that led up to my sister and me: Once upon a time, two Irish people got together and had a baby. What were their circumstances, and how large was the family? Their child or perhaps children grew up and moved across the ocean, where they lived in Philadelphia for six generations.

Why did my ancestors immigrate? That is my first and foremost question. I continue to wonder about what happened next. Were my ancestors poor? As Irish, how were they treated in the late 19th and early 20th century in the States? Were they prohibited from applying to certain jobs, as many Irish were? Did they have to do menial labor to survive?

Was it a big deal when they first intermarried with the French? At what point did they lose their Irish culture, and at what point did they become simply “White”? How did the power dynamics change over time? I am most curious about these questions.

As previously noted, my heritage has not affected me culturally, but does it impact my physically? I love my body, but I do not think I look Irish. I have my dad’s eye and body shape and hair texture, which were passed down from my English, Scottish and other unknown ancestors. Perhaps my green eyes are the most Irish physiological characteristic, but my family has been living and procreating in the United States for so long that I feel like a “European mutt” more than anything. My first name is Irish, but my parents chose it because it means “pure” rather than for its origin.

I am in the process of exploring who I am historically as I grow in who I am in my future — ideally an African, as much as any American emigrant or immigrant to East Africa can be. I wonder what cultures my children and grandchildren will inherit and how they will deal with the ambiguity of their European heritage as it grows more and more distant, since they will likely be mixed race from myself, a European-American, and from their father of who knows what other race or ethnicity.

My future husband and I will bring the cultures in which we were socialized into our home as well as other cultures in which we are interested. Since God has called me to the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Congolese culture should play a large part in their lives as well. Thus, my children will likely be multicultural, third culture kids. Multiculturalism is beautiful, but it is complicated. I look forward to exploring it more as I look into my heritage, engage in the present and prepare for the future.

Happy Saint Patrick’s Day!