Over in KillarneyMany years ago,Me Mither sang a song to meIn tones so sweet and low.Just a simple little ditty,In her good ould Irish way,And I'd give the world if she could singThat song to me this day."Too-ra-loo-ra-loo-ral, Too-ra-loo-ra-li,Too-ra-loo-ra-loo-ral, hush now, don't you cry!Too-ra-loo-ra-loo-ral, Too-ra-loo-ra-li,Too-ra-loo-ra-loo-ral, that's an Irish lullaby."
Very sweet. Here’s the problem: do you suppose anyone in Ireland ever sang “that’s an Irish lullaby”? Do you suppose they would have sung it in English? At first glance, this would appear to be, not a traditional song brought over from the home country, but a distinctly American glance backwards.
A small amount of research shows that it was written by a certain James Royce Shannon – birth name James Royce, “Shannon” added to make him sound Irish – of Michigan. He wrote it for a show in New York in 1913. Irish? Well, as near as I can tell, he was a Scottish-Rite Freemason – both ethnically and religiously committed to the destruction of Irish Catholicism.
Does that make it a bad song? Of course not. It’s lovely. Perhaps it’s even musically Irish. But this is hardly the survival of old-country traditions, hardly a bulwark of particularity and mysticism. With all due respect to Grandpa, it would seem to appeal to an Irish-ness that is Irish only in sentiment, but pretty well assimilated. An Irish-ness that doesn't remember Ireland.
And the song raises a further problem. Do you suppose back in County Kerry, they thought of themselves as “Irish”? I’m not sure. I’d guess they more often thought of themselves as being from Farranfore, Balleyheigue, or Lixnaw.
What’s important to Grandpa is that his parents met at the University of Wisconsin – where Grandpa and Grandma met, as did, incidentally, every one of Grandma and Grandpa's siblings and their spouses, my other grandparents, my step-father’s parents, my mom and dad, and later, my mom and step-father. I grew up an easy bike ride from UW. My grandfather somehow ended up with the copyright on a song you’ll surely never hear, entitled “My Home is in Madison” (“M-A-D-I-S-O-N, where the girls are the fairest the boys are the squarest of any home town I’ve been in”) – and it’s true, that’s our home. When my grandfather was getting ready to face death, he headed back to our “old country,” where his brothers were waiting for him.
My wife laughs that the fight song “On Wisconsin” (“plunge right through that line, run the ball clear down the field, boys, touchdown sure this time!”) along with its sequel, “If you want to be a Badger” (“just come along with me, by the bright shining light of the moon!”) are far more dear to my family, far more often used as bedtime songs and family-gathering rousers, than any “Irish lullaby” in her family. When I’m feeling nostalgic, I go to badgerband.com/music and click through all the old standards: “Varsity” (“U-rah-rah, Wisconsin! Praise to thee we sing!”), “You’ve Said It All” (“When you’ve said Wis-consin”), and “Songs to Thee, Wisconsin” (“Queen of all the West . . . May thy sons and daughters, in thy jubilee, See the dawn of greater, grander things to be”). When my grandfathers fought in World War II, I’m quite confident these were the songs that reminded them of their true homeland -- not anything about "purple mountain majesties."
THY SONS AND DAUGHTERS
Ethnicity means being from somewhere in particular, with traditions, and roots. We don’t stay there forever – though it would do a lot for our culture if we could stay put for a few generations at a time. We should bring our traditions with us. My children, who have so far lived in Washington, D.C., and St. Paul, Minnesota, and who, I very much hope, will spend the rest of their childhoods – indeed, I hope, maybe much of their lives – in Newark, New Jersey, certainly know how to sing “On Wisconsin.” It’s where I’m from, who I am. But I doubt they’ll sing it to their children. They’ll root root root for the home team – Rutgers? Princeton? Seton Hall? – and, I pray, learn to think of themselves as from somewhere, with the traditions not only of our family but of our neighborhood.
An old definition (discussed in my May post) speaks of “A group of persons connected by common descent or origin; a family; a tribe or people; a group of tribes or peoples forming an ethnic stock.” Ethnicity means rootedness, knowing who you are and where you’re from, rejoicing in traditions, knowing that you are part of something bigger than yourself. The old immigrant populations give us a point of departure – but it is for our generations to live ethnicity in an American way, to be from Newark, or Madison, or Washington, just as our ancestors were not from Ireland, but Abbeydorney, Knocksnagoshel, or Derrynane, in County Kerry.