irishAs I walked into a tiny boutique in Tahoe City, I was instantly swept back in time to when I was a child and being Irish meant I wore a badge of honor. Studying all the adorable decorations for St. Patrick’s Day, I saw smiling leprechauns, green shamrock encrusted plates and napkins, beer mugs sporting sayings like, “Kiss me I’m Irish.”

As a child, knowing I was Irish made me feel like I was one of the chosen ones. My father, born to Irish Catholic immigrants in 1916, instilled that heritage into his daughter’s heart from the time I was three-years-old. And every March he loved to remind me just how special that was.

“Jackie, you’re 100% Irish,” he’d proudly state. “That means you’ve been blessed.”

For years, I believed this and felt that St. Patrick’s Day belonged to me, more so than my classmates. The world was my treasure chest filled with Celtic jewelry, Belleek China, and rainbows leading to a pot of gold because of my illustrious lineage. One day, when I was 13, my mother came burst my amazing green bubble.

“Honey,” she started slowly. “I hate to inform you, but you’re not exactly 100% Irish. Half of you comes from me.” Fearful I was about to hear that my whole life was a lie, she continued, “You’re English too.”

Dumbfounded, I stared into her sympathetic eyes. All I could say was, “huh?”

“Well, I know your dad would like to think you’re only Irish, but I had something to do with your legacy also.”

For several years following that disillusioned moment, I wondered why this fixation on Dad’s heritage was so important. Heaven knows there’re enough jokes circulating about his nationality to make one wonder— Irishmen drink too much, spend too much time on their knees in church, eat boiled food, and sing “Oh Danny Boy” at the top of their lungs, even when they don’t know all the words.

But being Irish also means having an indomitable spirit and an inherent hunger for justice and freedom. My grandparents were dirt poor when they came to San Francisco in the mid 1800′s. Known as “Irish Niggers,” these new Americans set out to prove their worth and fought to be recognized as hard-working men and women of faith and devotion to their family. Somehow surviving the Great Depression with little or no income, my grandparents made sure their three children had Catholic educations and my father was the first in his family to obtain a degree at St. Mary’s College in Moraga. While my own life has had its difficult moments, I have never known such adversity. My parents made sure of that. I was blessed with a childhood where all my basic needs were met. I never wondered where my next meal would come from; parochial education was standard for all four of their children, and higher education at prestigious universities was not just a fantasy but a requirement.

So why do I still get jazzed about this one-day in the year since discovering I’m a 50/50?

Some friends might say it’s just another excuse for me to party. While I must admit I love celebrations, I get excited about March 17th because I see it as a commemoration of mankind’s unconquerable will to survive and thrive. The human spirit should always be rejoiced.

So this St. Patrick’s Day, I plan to paint shamrocks on my face, wear green clothes, sing “When Irish Eyes are Smiling” (even though I don’t know all the words), and drink green wine (I hate beer). I will dance a jig until I have holes in my shoes and then get down on my knees and pray for everyone who is facing a personal struggle that they too gain the strength to rise above— just like the Madden clan.

Even though his percentage might have been slightly exaggerated, my dad was right! I’ve been blessed.

I’m sure you have a story to tell about your family history. I’d love to hear it!