Thursday, March 17, 2016
Happy St. Patrick's Day!
The wearing of the green has always been a big deal in my family. My mother's maiden name is Burns and her mother's maiden name was Roache. My family was proud of our Irish roots when I was growing up and described themselves as "lace curtain Irish." This was an important distinction in the minds of my elders.
Here's a definition of the term from Wikipedia:
Lace curtain Irish and shanty Irish are terms that were commonly used in the 19th and 20th centuries to categorize Irish people, particularly Irish Americans, by social class. The "lace curtain Irish" were those who were well off, while the "shanty Irish" were the poor, who were presumed to live in shanties, or roughly-built cabins.
Neither term was complimentary. Aside from financial status, the term "lace curtain Irish" connoted pretentiousness and social climbing, while the "shanty Irish" were stereotyped as feckless and ignorant. As lace curtains became commonplace in Irish-American working class homes, "lace curtain" was still used in a metaphorical, and often pejorative, sense. In the early 20th century, James Michael Curley, a famously populist Boston politician who was called "mayor of the poor", used the term "cut glass Irish" to mock the Irish-American middle class, but the term did not catch on. Irish Americans who prospered or married well could go from "shanty Irish" to "lace curtain Irish", and wealthy socialites could have shanty Irish roots. John F. Kennedy, for example, is considered "lace curtain" even though his grandparents were poor immigrants.
What we have to remember is that my mom was born in 1909 and her family was not far removed from their immigrant past. Such distinctions mattered to a degree that we can hardly fathom now when everyone wants to claim to be Irish. The Irish immigrants were looked down upon and reviled so they struggled to be accepted. Her father, my grandfather was a Naval Captain, a commander of men. The men and even women of the family were educated and distinguished in their chosen fields of medicine and law so they probably had the right to express some pride in their group accomplishment.
The Irish immigrant story is a fascinating one and one I'm happy to pass along to my children and grandchildren who are direct descendants of many immigrant groups - Chinese, Mexican and yes, Irish! Here's to all the branches of my family tree, the Ho, Garcia, Dowell, Johnson, Quinn legacy lives on!
Until next time,