I Wish I Could Be Irish
by Thomas Reimer
I write historic fiction. Frank West has reviewed several of my books in The Irish American News. My novels are about Chicago immigrants arriving in 1831. My original idea was to write about Germans coming to Chicago. I am of German descent and have traced my ancestors back to the 1780’s. As I delved into the history of Chicago I could not escape the significant role the Irish played in our city. I am proud of my German ancestors but truth be told they could be someone stiff and stern. I decided to expand my stories to include the Irish. But I knew nothing about Irish history, background or personality. How could I write stories about Chicago without the Irish?
Seven or eight years ago I learned of the Irish American Heritage Center and visited it for the first time. It is amazing. I was directed to the magnificent library where I was warmly greeted by a wonderful librarian, Peg Reid. When I told her I wanted to learn as much as I could about Ireland and the Irish, she became an enthusiastic guide. She must have called someone because soon several older men came, introduced themselves to me, asking, “Are you the German?”
Ah, what wonderful accents. I think I became hooked that very first day. I joined the Center soon afterward. I enjoy reading the Irish American News – not only articles, I also circle names, Irish names, many of which I give to the fictional characters in my novels. I have also taken out books from the library and one Christmas bought many gifts in the Center’s store.
I was ignorant of the Potato Famine, the hatred the British had of the Irish Catholics, the geography of Ireland, and the songs, poetry and customs of the people. The leaders through the centuries who sought freedom for a people who are so gifted, so generous, so welcoming.
The United States was founded primarily by the English who brought their hatred and bias against the Irish with them to America. For decades stores and businesses posted signs in their windows, “Irish need not apply.” While at the same time in Chicago, the majority of the firemen and police were Irish. They could, after all, speak English. Other European immigrants could not.
The more I have learned about the Irish, the more I have come to admire them. While I dearly loved my grandparents, the men were so stern and at times seemed humorless. They worked hard and seemed to have little fun. But then that was the view of a child. I never really knew my grandparents. They all passed away before I came of age.
I found a book which compared the Irish to the Germans. One chapter put the differences between the two in terms of their attitude toward negotiating a contract. Germans, the author wrote, even when they achieve 95% of what they want, keep on negotiating to get the final 5%. The Irish, he wrote, are more laid back, figuring they can get what they want after the contract is finalized as they did the work.
In one of my books I wrote about the differences in Christmas customs and traditions between the Irish and Germans. It is fascinating. I was raised Lutheran. My fictional Irish characters are Catholic. The Irish find such joy and live their faith even amidst their poverty. The Germans, at least my family, sought perfection in what should be cheerful and uplifting. Traditions can turn into fear for German children if they don’t do it right. What comes through their differences, however, are their common belief in the birth of the Christ Child.
Germans hid a glass ornament in the shape and color of a dill pickle on their Christmas tree. Whichever child found the pickle, got an extra present. When an Irish family went to church on Christmas Eve, one member stayed at home to put up the Christmas tree and decorate it.
I know the grass always looks greener on the other side. That my be true. But if, as Shirley MacLaine believes, a person comes back after death as someone else, I’d like to come back as an Irishman.