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Thursday, April 2, 2015

In Search of my Irish Past - Part 2

Last week, I talked about the connection between my Scot-Irish ancestors and my two historical books, River Passage and Songbirds are Free. Both these books took place after the Neely family had arrived in America from Ireland.

When I began researching for Vicki’s Key, my book featuring CIA psychic spy Vicki Boyd, I knew the plot required her to fall in love hard and fast. I combed through surveys conducted through major women’s magazines on what most women found attractive in a man—such as the five o’clock shadow and a sense of humor. Then I stumbled upon the accent.

It turns out that most women find the Scottish accent most appealing, followed by the Irish accent and then the Australian accent. As I pondered which to use, I looked more deeply into the cultures of the Scottish, Irish and Australians, as well as the geography. It was then that my mother’s side of the family—the Harpers—began to surface in earnest.

The more I read about the Irish, the more I saw my mother in them (shown above beside my father's picture). She loved a good laugh, and throughout her lifetime she and I had an ongoing “Laugh of the Day”. Long before the Internet, long before email and free long distance, I would snail-mail jokes to her that I’d heard during the course of my day. I frequently cut comic strips out that I thought she would enjoy, and when I came upon books with jokes she’d like, I bought them for her. When she passed away, I was astounded to learn that there were drawers filled with my letters, comic strips and jokes that she had held onto for decades.

She loved good stories—telling them and listening to them. She could spin a story like no other, and I believe I inherited much of my storytelling talent from her. The most fun I ever saw her having was when her sisters came to visit and they sat around and told one story after another.

The Irish have always been known for their good humor. And it’s downright impossible for a woman not to fall in love with a man who loves life and every minute in it.

I named the character Michael Dylan Maguire; Michael is my son’s name and Dylan was my grandson’s name (pronounced Dillon). In America, the character is known as Dylan but as the series progressed and he returned to Ireland, the nickname Mick was a glimpse into a past that he’d left behind when he sought to reinvent himself.

Dylan had emigrated from Ireland to the United States, and I found it fascinating how so many Irish left predominantly rural homes for a country they knew nothing about, a culture far different from their own, and for the opportunities they lacked in their native country. Many people make the mistake of believing that we are similar to Ireland, Scotland and England simply because we speak the same language (though there are huge differences between American English and British English). The truth is that they are vastly different.

My father was always very quick to point out that his side of the family was Scot-Irish, not simply Irish. As I delved into this, I discovered the unfortunate fact about immigration into the United States: apart from the British, it appears that we have discriminated against every other group of immigrants. Whether they were the Chinese building our railroads, the Italians, Germans, Japanese, Pakistanis, Indians (from India) or Mexicans/Hispanics, there have always been groups that tried to place them at the bottom. The signs of “No Irish Need Apply” below signs of employment or businesses prohibiting the Irish from eating or entering establishments have largely been forgotten; but they did indeed exist.

Those with higher education that had proven themselves as leading businessmen sought to put distance between themselves and the massive immigration of the Irish, particularly during the potato famines. I always believed my father’s family fell into this group, always making certain that people knew they were Scot-Irish. (Scotch-Irish, by the way, is incorrect; the Scottish people will be the first to inform you that Scotch is a drink and not a people.)

Later, when I began researching A Thin Slice of Heaven (release date May 2015) I realized the differentiation went far deeper. More on that in a future blog.

My father’s family had black hair and green eyes and they were tall. My mother’s family, in contrast, had many redheads among them and many of the women tended to be petite. My mother, when she married, was only 5’3” and weighed 105 pounds.

There is a saying amongst the Irish: “Red on the head where the Vikings tread.” As the Vikings moved south into the Irish Sea, they often raided villages close to the sea. It involved raping—or sometimes falling in love with and marrying—the Irish women. Further inland, particularly the western side of the island which was more geographically inhospitable, one didn’t encounter red-haired or fair-haired people. All of this has changed over the centuries, of course, as the world has become smaller and it seems no place on Earth is out of bounds.

Next week: I’ll talk about Dylan Maguire’s journey back to his homeland, the Irish bogs and the small village in which he lived—and the true story of my own ancestors.