I have a complicated relationship with my Irish heritage. On the one hand, it was “gifted” to me by my biological father, and if I could put some genetic distance between me and that abusive fuckhat, I would. It feels like I’m letting him have a part of my life, lay claim to some piece of me, by embracing the cultural heritage he donated along with his DNA. I want him and everything to do with him as far away from me as I can get it, want to deny everything he ever believed in, reject everything he so much as touched.
And, on this one? I can’t.
Because I am more closely tied to my heritage than I like to admit, most of the time. The Irish are known for a lot of things, like an irrepressible and inappropriate sense of humour. (Check.) They are known as pottymouths. (All the checks.) They are, of course, legendary in their drinking habits. (I’m not a big drinker, but I do jokingly call myself “an Irish drunk”.) They are known for their music and art — their love of it, and the creation thereof. (Check and check.) More than anything else, though, they are the survivors. They’ve endured poverty, famine, war, death. And they are still standing.
It’s easy, in a way, to romanticize that. That endurance, the “unbreakable spirit”. It’s easy to look at them and decide that they are heroic, that they are role models, that tragedy and misfortune rolls off of them like water off a duck’s back. It’s not true.
Because that kind of misery and pain, it takes a toll. Individuals can endure all of those things, sure, but it comes at a cost. Booze and crude jokes can only carry you so far. That kind of stress breaks a body down. That kind of hopelessness erodes ambition. Years of poverty and scraping by destroys the belief in a better life. Not the hope for it, but the belief that it can be had. An abundance of trauma breaks people — leads to alcoholism, bitterness, a jaded worldview, self-destruction.
And, if someone does “give up” in the face of that, if their spirit proves breakable, all too often that is considered the real tragedy. Not that this person put up with years of suffering, but that they allowed it to “break” them.
Having lived in poverty and with various forms of abuse my entire life, I have to shake my head at that attitude. Of course a plethora of negative life experiences are going to take a toll. It’s unfair to blame the person who lived through them for being affected. Because no one expects positive life experiences to have no effect, to do nothing to a person’s life or personality or perspective. Why the double-standard? If life experience shapes us, then that has to count for all experiences, good and bad.
My father called me “resilient”. As much as I wish I could prove the bastard wrong, the very fact that I am standing after what he put me through argues otherwise. I haven’t let the ravenous ghosts of traumas past consume me, even when it would be easier to give in than keep fighting.
For me, being Irish means acknowledging the hurt, the unfairness, the tears, and refusing to lie down under the weight of them. It means holding onto the determination to keep moving forward, because even if my pace is glacial, that is still better than letting my knees fold in resignation. It means remembering that I am not the first to hurt, not the first to survive, but that I can choose what that means — I can decide to self-destruct with bitterness and alcohol, or I can decide that I deserve better. It means remembering how important hope is, especially in the moments it is hardest to hold onto. It means knowing firsthand that the world is not a kind place, that the risk of rose-coloured glasses are greater than the reward. It means refusing to be silenced, to choose to speak out despite hopelessness or fear. It means being the voice of morbid humour in the midst of bleakness. It means finding beauty in dark places, and not valuing it less for being dark.
More than anything else, it means art and its creation is a way of life, a way to keep going, to keep the ghosts at bay.
I think this goes without saying, but as we live in a world of rampant asshattery, please allow me to state for the record: this is my intellectual property. As such, please do not copy, circulate, edit, alter, take credit for, or otherwise appropriate this material without my express permission. Thank you.