The young lady in the change booth at Heathrow inspected my maroon Éire passport.
“So, you are a plastic Paddy?” she said.
This was my first time using my passport, two decades ago, and I was feeling quite proud.
The shiny new passport had already gotten me through the European Union lane, quicker than the regular Arrivals lane, but now the change agent put me in my place. My newness, my American-ness, came through. Plastic, indeed.
I think about her every St. Patrick’s Day when I rummage around for some vaguely green sweater or tie but decline to join any parade that might be taking place.
My second passport, beside my beloved American passport, is courtesy of my grandmother, born in County Waterford in 1875. We lived under the same roof until she died when I was twelve (actually, it was her house, thrifty woman that she was) but I don’t recall her ever talking about the Ireland she left as a teen-ager. (I wrote about her three years ago.)
Being Irish, via a maroon passport, is a state of mind, and I claim to be Irish, deep down inside. I say it is the moody, emotional side, the side that cares. I love to hear the trace of an Irish accent, particularly in women, newscasters on the BBC or Euro News, or the lovely staff at Foley’s on W. 33rd St., and a few friends (they know who they are.)
Last Sunday, Christine Lavin was filling in for John Platt on WFUV-FM, and was host to Maxine Linehan in the studio, singing “Danny Boy” live. (This is not a song most artists rush to perform, just as jazz musicians charge extra for “When the Saints Go Marching In” at Preservation Hall.) But Linehan sang “Danny Boy” and damned if I didn’t get tears in my eyes.
Being Irish is part genetic – and part choice. I had a three-week binge on “Ulysses” back at Hofstra, and now I re-read it every five years or so. I am touched by Seamus Heaney and Frank McCourt and the plays of Brian Friel and Sean O’Casey.
My wife, with her own spouse passport, talks about a visit to Galway or Cork. Our one visit to Ireland (Canadians and Australians and Americans buying all kinds of green souvenirs), I remember the way old men chattered with each other, and one old lady who stopped us on a street corner in Ballsbridge and apologized for the heat wave. (It was 75 Fahrenheit, in July.) I file away some terrible things that have happened on the island. Life is complicated. But there are few days when I don’t remember the maroon passport in my desk, and my grandmother’s gift.
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(Maxine Linehan, below. Go for it, it's St. Patrick's Day.)
David Vecsey's sweet tale of distant love before the Web, now NYT Podcast, narrated by Griffin Dunne. Please see:
George Vecsey is Hofstra University's Alumnus of the Month! Read a Q&A with George here.