Happiness Challenge Day Something: Of Irish Women

As I imagined would happen, I fell behind in the 31 Days of Happiness posts. It was a long and challenging week. All the more reason to sit down this morning and concentrate on the happy.

It's St. Patrick's Day. 

I'm happy today that I come from a long line of fiery Irish women. My grandmother, Emily, came to this country as a teenager, having left her family farm and made the difficult transition to life in America. Before Alzheimer's claimed her memory, she shared this story with me -- how foreign it was to go from a farm in rural Ireland to the crowded streets of New York City. In Ireland, she navigated the chicken coop. In America, she navigated the subway system.

Her parents forbade her to date another Irish immigrant because he was Catholic, and she was Protestant. So, one day, while riding the subway with them she stepped off, never to turn back. She married Thomas, and that's how I got here. 

Recently I was wearing one of her necklaces -- a huge gold star medallion with a green stone at the center. Everywhere I went people commented on it, and I of course shared the story of who it was from. One of my friends asked if I had a photo of her in all her glory. Why yes, yes I do. 

It takes a certain kind of woman to wear gigantic costume jewelry and and ostrich fur.


Nani lived with us my entire childhood (and with my parents beyond that). Everyone loved her thick Irish brogue -- the deli workers at Publix and friends who visited our home. Later, when my college friends visited we would go to the only gas station in Birmingham that sold Shaeffer beer -- her favorite. "Nani is a badass," they would say. Yep, she was. We did not serve Shaeffer beer at her memorial service in 2010, but we did serve Hennessey, her other favorite. (When I recorded her story she told me the secret to her long life was an orange in the morning and a glass of Hennessey at night.)

As a first-generation American, my mom was raised with strong ties to Ireland, and to its values. For us, St. Patrick's Day isn't just one day -- it's year-round.

Irish music, Irish literature, talking about where we're from -- My mom worked to make all of us proud of where we're from. (I'm reminded of that every time I write my name.) She and Dad even sat through my first (and last) talk at an Irish Studies conference at USC, back when I thought I was going to be a English professor. Ah, how I loved to talk about postmodern interpretations of traditional Gaelic stories with a feminist re-imagining! 

Oh yes, I could talk a good game. Irish women can. 

This morning I cracked open a book of poems by Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill, said Irish feminist poet. It's brilliant and subversive, and honors Yeats and Joyce and all our forefathers, turning their language on its head. Her poems are powerful, honest and raw, portraying women as strong and active, as well as fragile and vulnerable.

Today I'm reading her, and thinking about where and from whom I come from. Oh, and listening to Sinead, who sings, "The whole time/ I'd never seen/that all I'd need was inside me."

The ultimate lesson from an Irish woman. I'm looking to you.