Mama Madison: All in the family

What St. Patrick's Day teaches us about everybody's heritage

It's often said that everyone is a little bit Irish on St. Patrick's Day, and for my kids this is more than just a little bit true. Both of their paternal great-grandparents were farm folk from County Clare who immigrated over 90 years ago, fleeing their war-torn homeland. My husband grew up hearing the tales of how his Grandma Nora had gotten so involved with the Irish Republican Army that she had little choice but to board that boat in 1920 and set sail for New York - it was a matter of personal safety.

Arriving at Ellis Island at only 19, Nora would create a new life for herself and her soon-to-be born only child William, known to our kids as Grandad Billy. Billy grew up poor but tough in the Flatbush neighborhood of Brooklyn. He rooted for the Dodgers, played street football and enlisted as a Marine in World War II.

Much to his Irish Mom's relief he returned safely, and thanks to the G.I. Bill of 1944, was able to attend the University of Oklahoma; he was anxious to leave the hardscrabble life of the Big Apple behind. Call it "luck of the Irish" or just plain hard work, he was able to make good on the promise of the "American Dream."

My family and I have celebrated this story at the annual Madison St. Patrick's Day Parade ever since its rebirth in 1998. We love watching local officials like Sheriff Dave Mahoney and Mayor Dave march along side of Irish dancers, Irish wolfhounds and fire trucks. And while I normally prefer my leprechauns animated in cereal commercials, Joe Herr, Madison's real life incarnation of this mythical creature, is a parade highlight.

This past Sunday's parade was the biggest and most delightful to date, with sunny weather and some Irish themed protest signs. You have to appreciate the Emerald Isle spunk of "The Bill is Blarney" and "Get the Snakes out of the Capitol" regardless of your politics.

But I don't just embrace St. Patrick's Day as a shout-out to my kids' Irish heritage or a reason to enjoy a parade. For me, "getting my Irish on" is a reminder that everyone comes from somewhere. We all have a family history, a lineage.

The soundtrack to my people's story is much more a Jazz Singer/Fiddler on the Roof mash-up than Danny Boy and Sinead O'Connor. But I think about my ancestors -- the Cohens, the Rosenthals, and the Ratners -- as I watch the numerous Murphy and O'Malley clans march proudly around the square. I see my own story, not to mention my own ridiculously curly hair, in the Irish Dancers as they high step on by. Whether the corned beef is Katz's or served with cabbage, it is still the salty meat of a proud heritage.

Yes, I guess for me St. Patrick's Day isn't just a chance to drink green beer and shout Erin Go Braugh. I see it as an annual opportunity to honor and cultivate my family tree--even if the garden in which it grows contains a whole lot more than shamrocks.

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