Every year as St. Patrick’s Day approaches, I feel as though I’m floating on a high tide of memories, a tide that swells higher whenever I hear Irish music or see shamrocks or an Irish flag. I’ve been that way ever since I was a little girl, and the feeling hasn’t diminished. No surprise there; St. Patrick’s Day was always a big event at my house, and its roots go deep.
I owe that, and a lot else, to my Irish-American father.
Dad’s ancestors came to New York in the 19th century, so our connection to Ireland stretched back a bit, but the bloodline ran strong and undiminished in my father. His name was Edward. He had fair skin and blue eyes and the kind of face that you might see in an Irish pub: genial and friendly, with a ready smile. He stood six feet, four inches tall, and when he was young he was very lean, which made him look taller. He liked to sit near the side aisle at church; he said that if he were in the middle, people would ask the pastor to remove the pillar.
That was another thing about Dad: his sense of humor. He always had a quip or a comeback at the ready, and he had the fastest wit of anyone I’ve ever known. He encouraged his offspring to follow suit; at our house, it was almost an unwritten rule that you didn’t say anything straight if you could say it funny. When you did, Dad would say in an understated way, “I like that.” It was high praise.
My Mom, Irma, helped by being Dad’s most appreciative audience.
Dad especially prized two things, and the first was his Catholic faith. He and Mom sent my brother and sister and me to Catholic schools, and we always went to Sunday Mass—no exceptions. I like to say that the only excuse Dad would accept for missing Mass on Sunday was death on Saturday. Yes, I’m exaggerating; if we were sick, we stayed home. Skipping Mass for sports or anything else that wasn’t health-related was forbidden.
Once I heard Dad end a telephone conversation with one of his brothers, my Uncle Jimmy, with the words “Keep the faith.”
“Keep the faith?” I asked.
“It’s an Irish expression,” Dad said. His respect for the Church and for priests and religious made it more than an expression; it was his way of life.
Dad also had enormous respect for education. He wasn’t able to go to college; his father died when he was 14, and he and his older brother had to go to work. He finished high school, but for Dad that wasn’t enough. He was adamant that his children would go to college, and it gave him great joy when we graduated.
Dad’s strongly Irish-American personality put a stamp on our household. It was evident in celebrations like our annual St. Patrick’s Day party, and perhaps in ways not so obvious to us. One of my closest friends, Una McHugh, born and raised in Ireland, once said to me, “I didn’t realize until I visited your house what an Irish family you were.”
Una gave me the push—and help in making reservations—that I needed to plan a trip to Ireland with my parents. We visited Una at her home there, we toured Dublin, and we drove along the spectacular coast roads in County Clare and County Kerry. Dad loved every part of it. Only a year later, unexpectedly, he died at 76. The joyous memories of Ireland never left him, and it was a great comfort to me that we had made the trip.
For many years, it’s been my privilege to cover the annual St. Patrick’s Day Mass and Parade in Manhattan. As I stand outside St. Patrick’s Cathedral and watch the marchers approach, my heart swells with pride and gratitude.
Dad once said to me, “If anyone asks, kid, your name is McDonnell.”
I’m still wearing the name proudly, Dad. Thanks for everything. And until I see you again, I’ll keep the faith.