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Friday, September 22, 2006

My Irish Moment

There was a time when friends of mine were hosting musical events in their home.  These home concerts were small, cozy events with food, drink, and traditional Irish music.  This family occupies a central position in the local Irish music community, a community that my wife and I are only peripherally connected to.

I have played traditional Irish music, and I understand and appreciate it, but I've never been crazy about it.  I have plenty of Irish ancestors, but that connection has not compelled me, as it has others, to identify with the music.  In fact, my surname is technically Scottish in origin (Colquhoun).  Add to that the Scottish ancestry on my mother's side, and my family has good cause to identify more with its Scottish roots.

A half-dozen years ago I began compiling and researching my family's genealogy.  The issue of ethnicity became clouded at once:  among my ancestors were Scots-Irish, Irish-Scots, Anglo-Scots, French-Canadian-Anglos, and Scots-Irish-Canadians.  It also became clear that my Calhoun forbears probably came from northern Ireland.  The connection to Scotland (if there was any at all) would have been back in the 17th century.  It made me a bit nervous to announce to my family that we were a lot more Irish than Scottish.  We knew nothing of Ireland, but we had all learned ancient Colquhoun history, we had clothing made from the tartan, some of us had visited Scotland, and one of my brothers had learned the whole kilt-bagpipe thing (he's really good at it, too!)

It was shortly after my father had died that my wife and I began attending the home concerts.  One of the concerts featured a fiddler living in New York but who had been born in Ireland.  During his performance, he told us that he had grown up in the western part of Tyrone County, near Donegal, in northern Ireland.  He mentioned the town, noting that probably none of us had ever heard of it, but I had:  it was the town near where my Calhoun ancestor had probably emigrated from, a fact that I had just recently unearthed.

So I was thinking about my dad, and about my Irishness, while the music played.  One of the tunes was by the famous Irish composer O'Carolan, who was a contemporary of Bach's.  My father loved Bach's music; he probably would have loved this traditional music, but he knew nothing about it.  For my dad, Irish music meant "Danny Boy."  And I could have introduced him to this music many years ago, but the thought never occurred to me.  We were Scottish, after all.

My father grew up Catholic in South Boston, which is about as Irish as you can get.  Our family had been there since the 1870's.  But no one had ever questioned the family's assertion that it was Scottish.  Apparently this concept, based on a technicality, provided solace and identity for a family struggling, like all the others, in an impoverished ghetto.  Certainly my father was eager to escape, and distance himself from his history.

I spoke with the fiddler after the concert.  He was excited that I knew about his home town, and he said I was lucky to know, even if only roughly, where in Ireland my ancestor had come from.  A lot of Irish-Americans have no idea.  Yes, I thought, I am lucky, and lucky to have realized, before it was too late, that this beautiful music actually applies to me.

BC

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