I made a phone call to my grandmother every March 17th for a decade and a half, always saying Happy St. Patrick’s Day first and second making a joke about how neither of us were going to get drunk, or even drink a single beer.
She was fiercely proud of being Irish, my grandmother, living almost her entire adult life in Emmetsburg, Iowa, the sister city of Dublin, where they have their own chunk of the blarney stone in front of the courthouse. She was 100% Irish and so was my grandfather, making my mom 100%, and me 50%. When I was a teenager, relatives would tell me I looked like my grandfather, who died on my mom’s birthday when I was seven years old. I never really got to know him, or if we were similar in any way besides our hair and bone structure. They say Grandpa had a pretty good appetite for booze, but I never really heard any stories. I had only been drinking legally for 26 months when the state ordered me to go to rehab when I was 23.
I never showed my grandma the tattoo I got to celebrate my first year of sobriety, a claddagh ring around my left arm, and she died last summer never knowing about all my problems with alcohol. I’ve had enough time with the tattoo that I don’t like it anymore, chalking it up to one of those things you do when you’re young and you don’t know shit about anything.
Every year St. Patrick’s Day comes around two weeks after I mark another year of sobriety. This year was the first March 17th in a long time that I didn’t call my grandmother, and I didn’t do much to celebrate besides exchange text messages with my mom and remember to not ride my bike in the street during the hours people are likely to be driving drunk.
I know not everyone marks St. Patrick’s Day by getting drunk, but plenty of people do. During my drinking years, it seemed as good of an excuse to get blackout shitfaced as New Year’s, or my birthday, or Friday. It seems now the further I get from those years, the less I identify with my half-Irish heritage, or as my grandma used to say, the only half I need to worry about.
A friend told me last year that we’re getting further and further from the generations who immigrated to the U.S. from Ireland, and people’s Irish heritage is getting more and more diluted. Now, my grandmother is gone, and it’s been 13 years since I’ve sat down and had a Guinness or six, and I wonder how much I really knew about being Irish anyway. I read all of Frank McCourt’s memoirs, used to know all the words to The Rare Old Mountain Dew and The Rising of the Moon, knew what the three colors on the Irish flag stand for (Grandma yelled at me for wearing an orange t-shirt to a family reunion once), I know the difference between a shamrock and a four-leaf clover, and I’ve watched Dark Side of the Lens at least 50 times. I also learned how to drink off a hangover, how to pour a perfect Black and Tan, and how handcuffs fit, but the older I get, the less I think that had anything to do with Ireland.
The Irish side of my family never taught me how to drink. My mother and her six brothers and sisters are characterized less by partying than helping people, grew up poor and worked their way to advanced medical degrees and raised families. What I’ve really learned from them is something like toughness, laughter even (and especially) when things aren’t going so well, fierce loyalty and a certain pride in those traits. So that’s what I think of when I think about St. Patrick’s Day now.
I see my life in two chapters, split by a very tough year learning how to relate to people and navigate a society often lubricated by beer and liquor. I would never in a million years trade all the things I’ve gotten to do sober for the freedom to drink again, even though it’s strange every time I’m at a table of people lifting glasses for a toast—especially on St. Patrick’s Day.
I don’t judge anyone for drinking, because I know some people are good at it, and some of us are complete disasters and the world is a better place if we abstain. But I also have this story about the struggle to quit and stay quit, and how it built a new person who could seemingly never quit anything else, and as a result found his way to some amazing places. And I’d like to think that type of resolve comes from being Irish, at least a little bit.