Sentimental Journey

It was neither practicality nor politics, but a bit of blood, a bit of blarney -- the memory of his beloved grandmother -- that drove a Baltimore writer to become an Irish citizen.

March 16, 2000|By Neal Thompson | Neal Thompson,SUN STAFF

If she were still alive, my grandmother would no doubt roll her eyes and snort upon learning that her American grandson had become a citizen of the Republic of Ireland, the country of her impoverished youth, the country she was happy to have escaped.

"Jay-zus!" she'd bark. "What the hell did you do that for?"

Ever since the certificate came in the mail last month, declaring me a foreign-born citizen of Ireland, I've been asking myself the same question: why?

The process began a year ago when my uncle the doctor came to Baltimore -- shortly after St. Patrick's Day -- and explained how, as a grandchild of Irish natives, I was eligible to apply for citizenship. He had done it and, I soon learned, so have 20,000 others in the past decade. Under a 1956 Irish law designed to stanch decades of emigration, the country offered its diaspora a chance to reclaim their nationality.

Children and grandchildren of Irish emigrants are eligible to apply, even though the U.S. State Department frowns on dual citizenship. And the appeal of Irish citizenship has grown since Ireland's entry into the 14-nation European Union and the rebirth of its tech-driven economy.

It took a year to pull together the documents -- birth certificates, marriage certificates, death certificates. In that year, I learned more about my heritage and Ireland than I'd ever known.

Still, when I began telling people about my citizenship pursuit, the questions confused me and my answers never seemed to satisfy the questioners, or me. Why was I doing this? What did it mean to me? What would it do for me? Was I being disloyal to America?

For starters, I explained to the bartender one night at an Irish pub in Annapolis, it's practical. I could live and work in Ireland and, more importantly, in Europe. My sons, Sean and Leo, could go to school there -- say, at Trinity College in Dublin. And traveling to some countries is easier with the purple passport of the European Union than with a U.S. passport.

"So, it's just for practical reasons?" he asked.

Well, not exactly. In truth, it was too easy not to do it. Sure, it took a year, but it was just paperwork. I didn't have to take a blood oath or turn my back on my homeland, the way newly sworn U.S. citizens do every month or so at Baltimore's War Memorial Building. There, people of all colors shed tears as they swear to "renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state or sovereignty" and to align only with the United States.

My reasons, I began to see, weren't at all political. They were emotional. Cultural.

Adrian O'Neill at the Irish Embassy in Washington says that most American-born Irish descendants seeking citizenship are driven by a similar mix of practicality and sentimentality. I wasn't alone, I realized. Nor was I trying to change who I am, to become someone I'm not.

I just wanted a connection to her, to Della.

A hardscrabble life

I had never known my mother's father, who died too young, so it's safe to say it was all about her: my grandmother. The woman who drank strong coffee and 8-ounce Budweisers, who wore only housedresses and cursed like a dockworker with the staccato brogue of County Roscommon. She was baptized Bridget, but was always known as Della.

She'd come from Ireland on the RMS Cythia in 1929 to start her American life as a nanny on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. She was the eldest of 10 children, and her father (a raging drunk who once stomped her pet rabbit to death) had pulled her out of school at age 11 to work on the farm. When she turned 21, he sent her across the Atlantic to earn money for the impoverished family.

At a bar one night, a girlfriend introduced her to Patrick Burke, and she realized he was the same steamroller coal-stoker she'd met at a dance back in Ireland. He drove trucks for Texaco and once pulled a co-worker from a burning truck just seconds before it exploded.

He was as handsome as she was beautiful. They married and moved to an airy apartment over a candy store in New Jersey. A daughter was born, then a son. Then Patrick got sick. He stopped working. They couldn't afford a hospital and a second son was born at home. Her husband died eight months later of prostate cancer. He was laid out in the living room at age 38.

She was 36. The year was 1944. She moved the family to a public housing project, its brick buildings connected by clotheslines and dusty paths. She started doing laundry and taking on sewing jobs, but it wasn't enough. She went on welfare but still managed to send $5 here and there back to the family. The welfare people told her to put the two boys up for adoption. She refused and, after the war, took a job with Bronstein Associates -- a sweatshop with row after row of seamstresses. She stayed nearly 30 years.

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