“Oh, your dad is a cop?”
Yes, that’s right. My dad was “just” a cop. It was but one of several reasons I did not quite fit in at my high school. My prestigious, expensive, college prep high school that I will not name. (Though, if you really wanted to know the exact school, it would not be difficult to find out.) My dad, the Chicago cop, worked multiple side jobs in addition to his regular police tours in order to send me to that fancy high school. It was the last school I wanted to attend but I would have never won that battle.
It started in high school…
Even before the first day of school, I knew I would not fit in there. For starters, I’d attended a public Chicago elementary school instead of a parochial grade school. The neighborhood in which I’d grown up was seen as unsavory (in fact, while in high school, I was ridiculed on a few occasions by those who believed I lived “in the ghetto”.) I was a cop’s kid going to school alongside children of prominent doctors and high-powered politicians (including the daughter of Chicago’s then-mayor).
Then there was the topic of my ethnicity. With a birth name like Francesca Maria Folinazzo, my heritage is fairly obvious. This caused me to experience a bit of culture shock at my high school, as I had grown up in Chicago’s Little Italy neighborhood. Almost everyone I knew, including my friends from elementary school, was Italian. Then I get to high school and I find myself in the minority, greatly outnumbered by classmates of Irish heritage.
The high school years are difficult no matter what. Then throw in these factors, which I felt were working against me, and the level of difficulty rises tenfold. I had no chance of fitting in with my classmates – or did I? There was one common denominator between “them” and me. Desperate to fit in, I decided it was worth exploring.
My Irish heritage
The reality is that I, too, have Irish heritage. That’s right. My paternal great-grandmother, Genevieve Kane, was born in Ireland and came to America in the early 1900s. She found herself in Chicago and that’s where she met and married my Italian great-grandfather. That results in the breakdown of my heritage to be 7/8 Italian and 1/8 Irish. Not much, but it’s something, right? Despite not knowing much about my great-grandmother or Irish traditions, my 1/8 Irish blood was enough to give me hope of identifying and connecting with some of my classmates.
So, here we are, St. Patrick’s Day, 1988. My paternal grandmother, Genevieve Kane’s daughter, was pretty much my best friend. I called her Mimi. It seemed that St. Patrick’s Day was the only day of the year my Mimi felt comfortable celebrating her Irish heritage. On this St. Patrick’s Day, Mimi gave me a pin with a little leprechaun on it and the words “Proud to be Irish”. I wore it to school on St. Patrick’s Day, pinned to a green sweater, attempting to get into the spirit like almost everyone else. Things were going great until the second-to-last period of the day: World History class with Mr. Kelly. As the class bell rang and everyone was settling in, Mr. Kelly said to me, in front of the entire class, “What are you doing with that Irish pin on?”
“Well, I’m part Irish,” I replied.
Incredulous, Mr. Kelly responded, “Francesca Folinazzo? You’re going to tell me you’re Irish?”
I began to reply, “Yes, my grandmo-” but he cut me off by saying, “Take off that pin. There’s no way you’re Irish.”
Here I am, an already-insecure 14-year-old, trying and failing mightily to fit in, being belittled by a veteran educator in front of a room of my peers. I was mortified. Hanging my head in shame and embarrassment, I took off the pin. I sat like that, with my head hanging, for the duration of the class, wishing the floor would just open up and swallow me.
After that traumatizing experience, I renounced my Irish heritage. I refused to recognize it, instead, telling people who asked that I am “all Italian”. Mr. Kelly had humiliated me that much. For decades, I wanted nothing to do with anything Irish-related, and that included traveling to Ireland.
Acceptance and validation
Then last year, I was invited to Dublin, Ireland, to experience, share, and write about Temple Bar TradFest. It is Ireland’s largest festival of traditional music and beyond. It was a perfect opportunity for me because, aside from travel, another of my passions is music and I’d just launched my new blog, Roots Music Rambler. I could not pass it up.
With 33 million Americans claiming Irish ancestry, I am not surprised that the Dublin locals I met often asked if I had “any Irish blood”. I got into a taxi one night and it didn’t take long for the driver to realize I’m American. A few minutes later, he asked, “So, have you any Irish blood, love?” I said, yes, my great-grandmother came from County Cork, so I didn’t have that much. The driver, whose name I did not get, replied, “What do ye mean? That’s still Irish blood; it’s enough!” I wanted to cry. Here was a real Irish person, in Ireland, welcoming me to his home country and not only recognizing my tiny bit of Irish ancestry but also encouraging me to embrace it. I had similar experiences with other locals and their reactions were the same as that taxi driver’s: you are Irish, you are one of us. I can’t even describe how validating it was to hear that from these lovely people. They knew nothing of my life and my background, and it didn’t matter. We shared the same blood and it was enough for them. I can’t say the same for Mr. Kelly. I still harbor resentment towards him. Now, though, I’m more upset that I allowed that incident to cause me to renounce my Irish heritage and not want to travel to Ireland. I’ll make up for it, though. I’m planning to return to TradFest in Dublin in January 2020, and hopefully a separate trip with my dad so he can make some connections to his Irish roots.
Knowing what I know now about the warmth and genuineness of real Irish people, I should be the one telling the cantankerous Mr. Kelly, “There’s no way you’re Irish!”