The Irish celebrate their St. Patrick today, and everyone who likes anything about Ireland will raise a glass of green beer, sing along to a lilting ditty or two, and romance the history of the oppressed. As a descendant of a Belfast Scotsman, I always find this day a little more complicated. You see… I’m Orange.
My friend Jane asked me recently, “When you went to Scotland, didn’t you feel a sensation that you belonged there?” She’s reconnected with her Cornish heritage. She’s made trips to visit the village her great-grandfather came from, walked the hills that would have been hers had he not emigrated to southwestern Wisconsin. Reflecting, she told me, “Looking at that landscape, I felt at home. More than I feel at home here. I felt deeply that I belonged there.” She wants the same for me.
The problem is, I don’t have an immigration backstory. My DNA has been mixing on American soil since the American Revolution. My mothers’ people were Irish who came to Appalachia in the 1700s. My father’s people were Scots who came to New Jersey when we were still a British colony. Loyalists,they moved to New Brunswick, Canada, when the American Revolution began. Since then, the two lines have been merrily mixing with the neighbors until I am a mulligatawny of British and northern European genes. There will never be for me the research to discover distant cousins still on the old home soil, the trip back, the reunions and day trips and imaginings about a parallel universe in which I live there a life of deep connection.
Or will there? My father (for whom the truth never got in the way of a good story) would always trot out his heritage on St. Patrick’s Day. He’d tell me the story of his ancestor who moved from lowland Scotland to Belfast in the Irish Plantation and from there to New Jersey. (Or maybe not. Charles White wasn’t big on details.) Nor was he particularly fond of his family. But one day a year, he’d speak of the Ulster Orangemen, and try to get me to wear orange to school on the day all the other children wore green.
Now Jane’s question has me thinking. I did go to the British Isles when I was 22, spending a month with a friend cycling a circle from Belfast to Kirkcudbrightshire in lowland Scotland and back through bits of England, the Isle of Man, and Ireland. As I’ve pondered Jane’s question, “When you went to Scotland, didn’t you feel you belonged there?” I’ve begun to believe that yes–Scotland did feel like “home,” and Ireland and its people felt somehow…. wrong.
There could be so many explanations for this… trip fatigue, economic disparity, prejudice. But for now I’m going to claim the right to pretend it’s true–that among all my mongrel DNA there is a strand that claims lowland Scotland as my birthright, orange my Irish history, and being on the wrong side of freedom struggles for centuries my unfortunate heritage.
I only ask one favor of Ireland–forgive me my centuries-old burden of Orange, and send that leprechaun around with his pot of gold so I can go look up the Whites of Scotland.