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My Irish Heritage—Or Not

With St. Patrick’s Day coming up next week, I began thinking about all those Americans who celebrate their Irish heritage that day. I used to be one of them.

I grew up in a small Wyoming town among many Irish-Americans. The locals even chose the name for my high school, Kelly Walsh High School, to honor of one of them. The Irish had settled in Wyoming over a hundred years earlier when they arrived to work on the trans-continental railroad.

Surrounded by so many Irish descendants, I probably felt like I fit in better if I, too, had Irish ancestors. Besides, I thought I had understood my paternal grandmother to have told me so.

Turns out, she claimed nothing of the sort. She said that our Reed family was “Scotch-Irish”. In my naiveté, I took this to mean we were Scotch and Irish. Never mind that Scotch is a beverage, not a nationality.

Only years later did I learn that the correct term, “Scots-Irish” referred to the American descendants of the Ulster Scots of Northern Ireland. These Presbyterians had come originally from the Scottish Lowlands to settle on the Irish plantations. Later, many of them moved on to colonial America. There they lived mostly on the frontier, as my family had.

I should have shown more suspicion about my supposed Irish roots for that and other reasons. Our family did not have a recognizable Irish surname (Reed?). My dad’s family was mostly Presbyterian, and we have not a Roman Catholic to be found.

Although I can no longer celebrate an Irish heritage, I can and will celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. I have pulled out my St. Paddy’s Day decorations and purchased my corned beef. My grandson and I have baked cookies decorated with green sugar. We are ready. Erin Go Bragh!

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