If I mention having Irish heritage to people in Ireland, they mock me.
“You’re Irish? You and 90% of Americans,” they joke, before adopting a fake accent to continue, “My great-great-grandpa’s grandpa was Irish. My family’s super Irish, we keep the culture.”
It doesn’t offend me and I understand their point: I personally have never been Irish. I was born an American, but most of my ancestors could not say the same.
I think people with clear lineages fail to recognize what a blessing that it. Even if they cannot trace their ancestry to a specific person or town, they know the general region their predecessors inhabited.
Take my roommate in Dublin, for example. She is English; her whole family going back generations is English. Of course, it’s highly likely there has been a mix of cultures there at some point — I believe she has a Scottish grandmother — but she knows that going back centuries, her relatives have been in England. She can assume she had family fight in any given English war, die in English plagues, maybe even enjoy a show at the original Globe during Shakespeare’s time.
Known lineage doesn’t have to be particular to a country, either. I have a friend who is half-Irish, half-Egyptian; his heritage is mixed but still clear. He can be fairly confident he has ancestors who built the pyramids, others who may have been converted by St. Patrick on the Emerald Isle.
For these two and many others, there’s no mystery about where they come from, so it’s easy to feel connected to a home, a people. I envy them the simplicity.
I know my mom’s maternal grandparents were Irish, but my grandma passed away before I could learn anything about them from her. Mom’s Dad’s family is German, he said, which is where their last name originates; I learned this year it may actually be Swiss, so that little bit of knowledge could be wrong. He also has Norwegian relatives, but I’ve never met them. My Dad says his parents are both a mix from all over Europe — “mutts” he called them in jest.
I have no idea when my family came to America. Did I have ancestors fight in the Revolutionary War? What country’s uniform were they wearing during World War I? What language were they speaking in the 19th century?
I can’t answer any of these questions, but I can name a few ancient Irish family members, some of whom died or emigrated during the Great Famine.
It’s unsettling not knowing how you came to be. I know people that can trace their family tree back for hundreds of years but I don’t even know where my last name comes from. When I tried to look it up, it said there is no origin. It was probably changed at Ellis Island when immigrating to the United States, one site said, which means it could have been any name from anywhere.
I could have a genetic test done, which would be fascinating, but wouldn’t tell me what I want to know. Where was my family and when were they there?
On the flip side, it is remarkable thinking how many things had to go just right for me to exist. The times my ancestors all had to move cities or countries at just the precise moment to meet who would become their partner makes my very being highly improbable. What if 500 years ago, one man decided not to leave Poland or Germany or Sweden or wherever? My whole lineage vanishes.
That thought process applies to everyone, but it feels bigger knowing it spans oceans and continents.
I suppose there will always be the allure of knowing and the bittersweet acceptance of remaining a mystery, even to myself.