Rituals are part of the Irish Catholic lifestyle. Perhaps the most dreaded ritual is when a loved relative dies and all of the Celtic nuances of mourning are set into motion. Namely, the entire family is notified of the passing of either a grandparent, aunt, uncle or some other relative. Then the wake is planned, the funeral and finally internment at the Catholic cemetery. Usually this ritual remains unchanged and has seemingly remained firm, since the first Irish settlers set foot into the United States.

As a third generation descendant of great grandparents that emigrated from Ireland, I have always been fortunate to have a large extended family of pseudo- aunts and uncles, cousins of multiple degrees and scores of indeterminate relatives that always help when the Irish families of the Diaspora gather to celebrate life, weddings and death. They fascinate me in the fact that despite the distances between all of us by physical location everyone finds the time to come together to mourn and celebrate the life and the new life in Christ the deceased relative now enjoys.

These reunions are great opportunities to recall the lives and heritages of all of our Irish relatives that made successful and productive lives for themselves in a new country…in most cases with just the clothing on their backs, assistance from other family members that arrived in the United States a bit earlier and perhaps a few dollars to spare. Irish families after immigration to the United States generally were reliant on each other for support and encouragement. Another critical means of support was of course their Catholic faith, which often targeted them for many forms of discrimination and pejorative treatments by non- Catholic Americans. However, the Irish American emerged from the 19th century as a formidable influence that helped determine American society, lifestyles and politics.

I find it most interesting that despite the passage of generations and years, my Irish cousins and extended family of relatives is still in a sense embracing the traditions of our grandparents and great-grandparents and handing on these values as part of not only our Irish ancestry heritage, but also our heritage as good American citizens. While we sometimes only see each other when someone is baptized, married or buried, I know I am able to call on any or all of them for any sort of assistance if the need ever arises. That type of familial bond is perhaps rooted in the ancient Celtic tradition of the clans on some level; however I firmly believe that in the case of Irish Americans that sense of familial connections and obligations has a more deeply rooted foundation, namely in the long struggle for support and recognition the Irish fought as new immigrants to this country.

Many examples of prejudices are often cited as part of the contemporary American society, however our Irish ancestors were saddled with many forms of prejudices that took the form of anti-Catholicism and anti-equal opportunity discrimination that ranged from denial of employment to consigning the Irish immigrants to the proverbial slums of the 19th & 20th centuries simply because the Irish were considered anti-American based on their allegiance to their Roman Catholicism and the goal to achieve better lives then the ones they left behind in Ireland because of agricultural famine and British tyranny.

Growing up in an ethnically Irish family, in an urban environment (Gray’s Ferry) was perhaps the greatest lesson that imparted the true meaning of family, faith and civil responsibility one could ever receive. The lessons learned from a Catholic education (Saint Gabriel Parish), surrounded by multiple generations of relatives and friends that shared the same Irish identity and struggled to achieve better lives was a remarkable example of living the American dream and achieving it through hard work, strong faith and most importantly the support and love of an extended family that transcended generations of hard working and well intended Irish immigrants that all worked towards the same goal.

Recently, I attended the funeral for a great-aunt and lamented the fact that there are so many of my extended McNichol Family that I don’t even know simply because I myself have now become the older generation of the same extended family of Irish immigrants. It is refreshing however to know that all of these young members of my family, while not all retaining the family name are aware of the strong bonds and ties that unite all of us together as family, as Catholics and as productive citizens.

The names have changed over the generations but many of my extended cousins are still engaged in careers of law enforcement, lawyers, education and even skilled labor much in the way their great-grandparents made a living for themselves and their families. It is even more refreshing to note that we have all kept the faith and remained Catholic and shared the faith that brought out Irish ancestors to America in order to freely celebrate their faith in Christ and their devotion to the Catholic Church. Most impressive and reassuring finally is the fact that we still find it important to gather together to celebrate milestones such as births, weddings and deaths, not because we are required to participate, but because we want to be present at all of these events because of our common heritage as family, Catholics and above all friends to each other whenever and wherever there is a need to show our familial support that joins us as a transcendent clan of McNichols, there for each other whatever the reason, in faith and love.

Hugh J.McNichol is a Catholic author and journalist that reflects on Catholic topics and issues. Hugh studied both philosophy and theology at Philadelphia’s Saint Charles Borromeo Seminary. He is currently in an advanced theology & history degrees program at Villanova University in suburban Philadelphia. He writes daily at http://verbumcarofactumest.blogspot.com , http://catholicsacredarts.blogspot.com . Hugh writes on his Irish Catholic parochial experiences at  http://graysferrygrapevine.blogspot.com.
He also contributes writings to The Irish Catholic, Dublin, British Broadcasting Company, and provides Catholic book reviews for multiple Catholic periodicals and publishers, including Vatican Publishing House.
Hugh lives in Delaware’s Brandywine Valley with his wife and daughter.
Hugh welcomes your comments via hjmn4@trinetconsultantsinc.com.

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