As a young child growing up in the Riverdale/Kingsbridge section of the Bronx, I learned from my family and friends everything about a little island in the North Atlantic Ocean, the country of Ireland. At such a young age never having seen the land for myself, I had to rely on stories and black and white photos to try and imagine what it was like to live in a rocky, green climate that always seemed so dismal and so far away.
My aunt Ann Coggins was the one member of the family who kept up the Irish heritage and made sure that all the American Irish, those of us that were born in the states, were well educated on where we came from.
Every Sunday she would come up from midtown Manhattan and spend time with us. It was typical that WFUV, Fordham University’s Irish channel, would be playing in the background. The radio would play forever, it seemed, telling us all about Irish language, dancing and “The Troubles” back home. Every March 17 was like Christmas. The house was filled with family and friends as the most celebrated holiday in Irish American history. St. Patrick’s Day was here.
On my mother’s side, my grandmother Mary Coggins O’Reilly came from a town called Roscommon and my grandfather James O’Reilly came from a Town called Cavan. They both immigrated to the United States in 1922 and met in New York City and had four children. They have all since past.
On my father’s side, my grandmother Helen Galvin also came from Roscommon and my grandfather, who was Protestant, came from County Armagh. They both immigrated in 1921 to the United States and met in New York City and had two children George (my dad) and John. They too have all since past.
During my early childhood in the 1980s, Ireland was in terrible shape, both north and south. War raged in the north as the Irish Catholics IRA were battling the Irish Protestants as the IRA was attempting to cast out the British government from 700 years of domination. The British government at times used very handed tactics to crush the Irish Catholic rebellion and it was very personal for all of us. The Irish economy in the south (Republic) was in shambles. High unemployment and no hope for a better life plagued the Irish for centuries. These were the main reasons my family immigrated to the United States.
My Aunt Ann Coggins, an IRA supporter, would tell us stories of how British soldiers came to Roscommon and rounded up the men and shook them down to find weapons and supporters of the local IRA.
As she told the stories you could see the horror she experienced and the reasons for the deep hatred of the British government. As an American of Irish descent, it was like I was being torn apart. My country is a staunch ally of Britain and to remain quiet and neutral was the best course of action so I wouldn’t upset my aunt. I figured I’d draw my own conclusions on Irish politics.
Well, trying to understand Irish politics is sometimes like trying to figure out how the Earth came to be. You get the surface but all the underlying stuff is very complicated. One thing was for certain, through the 1980s Ireland was going to be tough to solve. As for my Irish friends, many of them supported the IRA and the cause. My interest in this complicated and confusing part of Irish history caused me to walk away and disengage and St. Patrick’s Day to me became a reminder of it all.
As the violence in Northern Ireland became more widely known in the 1990s, it took the courage of an American president, Bill Clinton, to say after 700 years enough was enough. He pushed to find peace in Northern Ireland and bring the island nation stability so it could experience what many Irish Americans experience in the United States: peace and prosperity.
In my eyes, the distant war that I had known my whole life was coming to a close and my ancestors and family could finally be at peace. I began to find more interest in my Irish heritage again and actually went to the country in 1994 for the first time and I fell in love.
I went in search for the family farm in Corrigan Row, Roscommon, where just the foundation was left on the home of Aunt Ann and grandma. It was an emotional experience, something I’ll never forget. While I was there I did see the Irish prospective of what they called “The Troubles.” A bomb had exploded in Enniskillen killing a woman and her children. They were murdered innocently as the IRA and the UFF (Ulster Freedom Fighters), “The Protestants,” were battling in the final days of the war. That was the day I finally realized that both sides were nothing but terrorists and that I finally knew where I stood on Irish politics.
What nailed the coffin were the events on 9/11. I realized that day that men and women who take it upon themselves to host and participate in wild acts of terrorism are not who I wanted to be associated with. What would Aunt Ann think if she were alive today?
So now it’s up to the second generation and the generations that will follow to carry the torch of those that came before us who endured the struggles and to finally heal the wounds of hate and religious intolerance.
As I get older, I realize that life is about just trying to find humanity in us all, and while St. Patrick's Day was once a celebration of politics more than culture, it now can be fully about the celebration of a wonderful culture that strives for peace, prosperity and humanity.
I encourage everyone who has never been to the Greater New Haven St. Patrick’s Day Parade to attend this year on Sunday, March 13. You will be quite impressed and will learn a small bit about Irish culture.