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Here’s another take. Desmond Sharp-Bolster is an Irishman whose name and accent have that ring of the once-ruling Anglo-Irish caste that would have been anathema to the half-starved Gaels arriving in Connecticut in the 19th century. But after the Irish uprising in 1920-21, great numbers of his class were pushed into ruination, while thousands more fled under threat of death back to mother England.
Back in the 1960s and ’70s, his job was to be the face of Ireland in Connecticut, and the U.S. in general, as a senior marketing executive for Guinness.
“Our mission then was to teach people to drink a pint,” he says. “Back then, Irish-Americans in Connecticut drank Guinness in 6-ounce bottles called ‘nips,’ usually followed by 15-cent glasses of beer.” Desmond’s job in part was to host uproarious affairs that played to the nostalgia of the by-then widely affluent Irish. “People looked at a pint glass like it was a thing of wonder,” he recalls. “People loved my accent. It was party time to present yourself as being Irish back then. It was a given that if you were into being Irish that you were into the drink, and some of the behavior that went on would be shocking today. But God we had fun.”
With his wife, Melanie, a native of Greenwich, Desmond now runs an ivy-wreathed guesthouse in County Cork called Glenlohane, with 250 acres of rolling fields—not rolling mills—gamboled by thoroughbreds.
These days, I spend a lot of my time writing in a bolt-hole beside a magical river in County Waterford. But even after 13 years in this country, I cannot understand half the people I meet there. Their syllable-grinding accents resemble those of dental patients recovering from root canals—because they are not talking Irish English per se or any other tongue known to me and you. The Blackwater Valley was invaded by waves of Vikings and Normans, then planted with settlers from the English West Country. And so the way of talking along the Blackwater River is a mind-bending mishmash, as is the gene pool.
Outside my cottage window I see trumpeter swans streaking past, and sometimes from the dark water a mighty salmon leaps—the softness of even the gloom here can feel eternal. Still, in the local village so many jobless people seem to have almost given up, far more than I ever saw in Connecticut. And my children, what of them? Are they supposed to live on parents’ dreams?
So what does it mean to be Irish?
A native of Milford named Robbyn Swan lives just down the river. She is the co-author of best-selling books like The Eleventh Day: The Full Story of 9/11 with her half-English/half-Irish husband Anthony Summers. But is Robbyn Irish?
“My father thought he was Irish from his mother’s side, which was despised by his Welsh/Scottish side,” she says. “I mean, he would wear a green hat on St. Patrick’s Day and sing ‘When Irish Eyes Are Smiling.’ But I always thought I was Italian because my mother was from Naples and she produced the food I will never forget and can’t find here.
“Even after 20 years, in some ways I don’t really understand what being Irish means,” Swan continues. “One of my kids speaks with a Waterford accent, another with a Cork one—that has to do with their schools—and the oldest fellow sounds half-Slavic since he had a nanny who was Czech.”
Desmond Sharp-Bolster’s wife, Melanie, is another transplant who’s not quite fully at home here. “My father was a Casey, so you could say in moving back here I was coming home,” she says. “And I do love the soft edges of life in Ireland. There is more mystery to life in Ireland than I remember in Connecticut. You slide into things here and you don’t know where a conversation will end. I love all that. But I will never stop feeling that I am a foreigner living in another country.”
Melanie’s refrain is often repeated. The transplanted Connecticut people I talk to in Ireland have a touching nostalgia for the smallest things back in their native state—just as the Irish immigrants of 150 years ago would have felt in reverse.
Robbyn Swan travels worldwide while researching her blockbuster books on subjects like 9/11, Richard M. Nixon and Frank Sinatra. Yet she aches for Sally’s Pizza in New Haven and Lasse’s Restaurant in Milford (where she got fired for spilling soup on a priest). Like others here, she rues the stridency she finds across present-day America and the billboards for guns and porn she saw during a recent visit to the Naugatuck Valley—an in-your-face culture that fades away in Irish living. Hoever, she sighs,“There is a big part of me that will always remain in Connecticut. Milford will always be my true home.”
Yvonne Kennedy brings her two sons, Thomas and Connor, back to Watertown every summer. There the former student of anthropology falls in love again with simple pleasures like swimming and tennis and campfires in the local park, and the bushels of early sugar-sweet corn—the first hints of the golden, glorious autumn to come. “Would I want to die and be buried forever in Ireland?” she wonders. “That’s an odd question I sometimes worry about in the night. I guess I hope not.”
Such are the common wrinkles of today’s search for ethnic identity, notes Quinnipiac’s Lahey. “The immigrant’s tale is a universal one of loss and rediscovery, with two sides of one’s identity always playing against each other.”
Food for thought perhaps for all those tucking into corned beef and cabbage this March 17. Few will be doing so in Ireland, though, and not a one will be on the green beer. Oh, there will be fantastical parades, sometimes featuring Connecticut and New York firemen in full regalia. Drums will bang, fake serpents will spit flame, and transplants from Poland, Brazil and Nigeria will dance en masse—for the new people of Ireland are everywhere, and from everywhere.
What they will think about it all the next morning is another question. For Ireland is the land of eternal yearning still—whether it is to return to it or escape.
David Monagan is the author of Ireland Unhinged (Council Oak Books and Transworld Ireland/Random House, 2011) and Jaywalking with the Irish (Lonely Planet, 2004). He currently writes a "Letter from Ireland" blog for Forbes.