Preparing to fly a flag for my Irish heritage

— Photo by Dennis Sullivan

The clerk at the Civil Registration Office in Killarney copies the name of Dennis Sullivan’s grandmother, Barbara Sullivan, from the public records.

For Patrick Damien McAnany

Every St. Patrick’s Day, as soon as the sun is up, I go to the front yard and hang a large Irish flag from our magnolia tree closest to the road — it’s my sláinte to the world. The flag measures five by seven feet.

I have a smaller Irish flag — three by five feet — that flies on the hill behind the house atop a tall steel pole encased in cement and stays out all year long. I raised the pole right after I became an Irish citizen to remind me of the duties to my new home.

My grandfather Denis and my grandmother Barbara were Sullivans from County Kerry — Sneem and Kenmare — and when an American has a grandparent who comes from Ireland, he can apply to become a citizen by heritage.

But the Irish do not hand out such things lightly.

I had to get a copy of my grandmother’s birth certificate and then track down her marriage certificate in New York City — and the documents had to be the so-called “long form” with the raised seal of the government. No exceptions.

Then I had to get my father’s birth certificate to prove that the aforementioned woman was his mother — my grandmother — followed by his marriage certificate to prove he was married to the woman who gave me birth — then a certificate of my birth saying I was John Sullivan’s son. 

People who buy and sell property engage in this process all the time; it’s called “chaining,” tracing every transfer back to the original source so nobody gets stuck with a pig in a poke.

I got my grandmother’s birth certificate in person at the Civil Registration Office in Killarney where, at one point, the clerk started talking to me like an Irish Catholic nun. 

I also contacted state and local officials in different jurisdictions in the States, saying I needed papers to prove my line. Everyone was eager to help — though in the National Archives in Dublin an office genealogist started talking to me like an Irish Catholic priest.

If attention has to be paid to Willie Loman, it certainly needs to be paid to the chaining process. Two people I know said that, after sending all their papers in, they got rejected; a letter came back saying they’d made a mistake. They didn’t have to start over, but were put on hold until they sent the right papers in.

I listened to how they described their mistakes so my application flew through with flying colors. Then one day a large white envelope appeared with “Irish Government” as the return address; it contained a small certificate, shaded in green, with a number signifying my new birth; it said sláinte, you’re now one of us.

It was one of my greatest possessions ever; I say “was” because, after enclosing it in a beautiful frame, I gave it to my son as a gift, letting him know what it meant to me.

Though I did then, and still do, cherish my new family, I must admit I’m not such a big fan of the Irish, qua Irish. I find part of their socio-genetic make-up a heavy lift, they ask a lot before they’ll leave their shell — though I think the younger folk are dodging the complex.  

The Brits I’ve met, on the other hand, always seemed to be “just there.”

For many years, I served as editor-in-chief of an academic journal out of the UK called Contemporary Justice Review — published by the esteemed Routledge, an imprint of Taylor & Francis — so at least once a year I was in meetings with Brits who came to discuss the health of our enterprise.

I also did a book with the company (with a colleague/friend) and, because of the journal and the book, the British editors used to take me out to dinner when we met at conferences, the fare paid with the Taylor & Francis American Express Card. 

And though I fully enjoyed the gastronomical outings with my over-the-pond British colleagues, I felt uneasy about my meal being paid for from the corporate till; it seemed like payola. More than once I offered to pick up the tab next time.

Maybe the Brits I worked with were London’s cream of the crop but I always felt they were there for their editor-in-chief. Plus, their sense of humor was more akin to mine than what I’d seen in the Irish.

I went to Ireland seven out of eight years to size up things for myself. In an essay I wrote when I got back, I explained, “When I first went to Ireland seven years ago I went not to see the place but to find out who the Irish were, a much more formidable task.”  

And I warned that the Irish are tricky: “It is possible to walk away after an hour’s conversation with the most personable Irishman to be found, only to shake your head a few moments later realizing that person told you nothing of himself.”

I’m not an ethnographer — I speak cum grano salis — but I sensed that the/many/some Irish have a passive-aggressive, minimalist, irony-ridden, almost cynical, take on things. More than one Irishman and Irishwoman I met had a story to tell but seemed unable to get it out so they spoke in a sideways tongue of wistful mirth.  

But in my relations with the two nations, I found the Irish — I was with them often outside of business — to be extraordinarily hospitable; even though their B&B’s are a business, the hoteliers treat guests with the kindness of a friend.

With St. Patrick’s Day just around the corner, I’ve been thinking of all the Patrick’s in my life. I have a grandson named Patrick; we used to have a cat Patrick. Years ago, I taught in a Catholic high school in Newburgh called St. Patrick’s; and because I lived eight or nine doors away from the church associated with the school, St. Patrick’s Church became my parish. 

Also, my grandparents, the Denis and Barbara mentioned above, were married in St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York — and my favorite Irish poet is Patrick Kavanagh.

Then there’s my old friend, Patrick McAnany, who died a week or two ago, a man who cherished his Irish line. He and his wife, Charlaine, are two of the best Christians I ever met, having spent their lives treating the hungry, thirsty, stranger, naked, sick, and imprisoned as one of their own.  

All these things are floating around my mind as I prepare to hang out my flag next week. The flag on the hill, a symbol of love for my second home, will easily take care of itself.

Lá Fhéile Pádraig sona duit!