Friday, March 15, 2013

The Phony Irishman

My great-grandfather,
Thomas Brady (1867-1916)
Despite the fact that my last name is Brady, for many years I felt funny about my Irish heritage – or the lack thereof.

It probably has something to do with the fact that my Dad's Irish grandparents in Norwalk – Thomas and Anna Brady – both passed away within 24 hours of each other in 1916 – five years before he was even born. So Dad never had a chance to meet them, hear any tales or learn any Irish traditions.

Dad's father – orphaned at 17 – drifted from Norwalk to Lorain, where he married a woman from Austria-Hungary who, for all intents and purposes, was German. Which meant that it was more likely for sauerbraten to be simmering on the stove in the Brady kitchen instead of Irish stew.

Dad's father had a job with the railroad, and was away from Lorain a lot, before eventually going away permanently. After the divorce, he died in Detroit in 1953 and thus – like my Dad – I never knew my Irish grandfather either.

So although I grew up with a rich German heritage thanks to my Dad's mother's side of the family, as well as my own mother's German background – as you can see – there was no Irish heritage to speak of at all.

Making matters even worse from a traditional Irish standpoint was the fact that my father and mother were both Protestants. My father would have been Catholic, but a family squabble with the Church in Lorain (it tried to take custody of his widowed grandfather's kids) resulted in Dad and his sister ending up being sent to church with their neighbors - who just happened to go to First Lutheran.

And because of this rather casual conversion to Protestantism, I even was hassled by a kid in my Cub Scout troop named O'Brien, who at one point told me, "You're not really Irish – because you're Orange Irish!" (And this was in elementary school!)

So do you understand why I felt like a phony Irishman for many years?

It wasn't until after college, when I started researching my family tree, that I began to discover and embrace my Irish heritage. I learned that my great-great-grandfather Peter Brady came from County Meath, and brought his family over in the mid-1850s, shortly after the Great Famine.

He settled in New Jersey and fought in the Civil War. Afterwards he moved his family to the Ashland-Mansfield area in Ohio. His three sons spread out, with one – Thomas, my great-grandfather – ending up in Norwalk.
It stirred my soul to know that my ancestor left Ireland to find a better life in the United States.

The TV documentary The Irish in America (1995) really helped me connect with the Irish experience. Suddenly I was able to appreciate what Peter Brady went through to get here.
Anyway, my research revealed that I was related to Bradys still living in Central Ohio, and in Indiana as well – all here in the U.S. because Peter Brady took a chance.

I even went down to Mansfield and visited one of my cousins a few years back. She had lived a hard life, and looked much older than her years, although she was about my age. She worked hard in a factory, lived in a shack in a very rundown neighborhood and was obviously poor. But she took a day off work to visit with a complete stranger with the same last name and the same great-great-grandfather, and we had a nice visit.

When I left, I realized that I had just witnessed the true Irish American experience: a life filled with hard work and hope for a better future.

Anyway, when St. Patrick's Day rolls around each year, I no longer feel sheepish about my Irish roots. 
Oh, I do some corny things. I always have a corned beef sandwich for dinner, and I usually sit down in the evening and watch my aging video cassette of The Quiet Man
But most importantly, I think how proud I am to be Irish – and American.


Loraine Ritchey said...

compelling story- being English I have no Irish tales to tell except my grandad was on guard at Dublin Castle after the great war and somehow came away with one of the keys :) I think my uncle pawned it in the 60's and I am still having trouble with one of the( Irish) churches in Lorain ;)

Dan Brady said...

Hi Loraine!
I'll check some of the pawnshops here in Cleveland where I work for that key! (It'll probably show up on one of those pawn shop reality shows!)
Maybe I can get out of trouble with the Irish church as well!

Jerry A. McCoy said...

Very nice piece! My McCoy ancestors arrived in the US before it was even the US in the mid
1760s from County Tyrone, Ireland. Any and all Irish customs and traditions were long ago lost and I always felt bad about that...