The Irish Cultural Center, with its resemblance to a Norman castle, is one of the newer landmarks on busy Central Avenue in Phoenix. During community dances, crafts classes, lectures and holiday events, the center is a bustling place. It is the only non-church-affiliated gathering place of its kind in a metro area that has steadily shown more ethnic, racial and religious diversity.
On a scorching Phoenix summer afternoon, the friendly folks who work there aren’t necessarily expecting anyone to arrive for a tour. How lovely, then, that when I show up — because I’ve long been intrigued about the place — they jump at the chance to show a stranger around. Over the course of an hour, I am treated to a personalized tour inside the center’s three major buildings, while I listen to wonderful tidbits of Irish history and learn about ways of life in dear old Éire.
Later I chide myself over waiting so long to visit the center, and am glad my NAU class in travel writing has goaded me into doing so. This week part of our reading has been about women writers paving the way for travel accounts that encompass a culture’s everyday life as well as its anthropological characteristics. Susan Bassnett, in the piece “Travel Writing and Gender,” talks about writers on journeys of self-awareness who take readers along with them on that journey. So here’s one woman’s brief in-town “journey” to the Emerald Isle.
How wonderful that three docents take turns in giving the tour, and it is inevitable that at least one of them would ask me about my ethnic background. Sure, you don’t have to be Irish to tour the center, nor is it always apropos to guess whether a visitor is Irish — or Latino, or Native American, or Senegalese or Croatian or anything. But Anne does inquire in a roundabout way.
“May I ask, are you from here?”
“Yes, I’ve lived in Phoenix for 30 years.”
“What brought you to the center today?”
I briefly explain my blogging theme on finding one’s identity, and Anne seems eager to pry more information out of me. After all, it is just me. Plus, I’ve already asked questions about Irish heritage and its Catholic foundations that make it pretty obvious — I’m not Irish.
“I’m Jewish, and my parents emigrated from South Africa and Germany.”
“Ohhhh, then there’s a lot you can relate to here,” Anne says cheerfully.
And she’s right. She immediately leads me to an outdoor stone sculpture, An Gorta Mór, or the Hunger Memorial. Dedicated in 1999, it was the first structure to be built on the center’s grounds. In commemorating the Great Irish Famine, the memorial bears an inscription relating the starvation, disease and mass emigration that took place in Ireland in the mid-19th century. The famine affected 2 million people, or 25 percent of Ireland’s population.
“We consider the Great Famine to be our Holocaust,” Anne says, in a comment that takes me by surprise yet has its merit. Although World War II’s massive loss of Jewish life occurred under much different circumstances, who’s to say that one kind of death is more horrifying than another? The Holocaust claimed about two-thirds of Europe’s Jewish population — it’s a fact I know but didn’t feel it was polite to bring up.
Still, the cross-cultural connections crop up in other unexpected ways during my tour, and not just concerning Jewish heritage.
In An Halla Mór, the Great Hall, Anne points out the lovely stained glass windows depicting saints and crosses. She asks if synagogues have stained glass windows, and I assure her that many of them do. She lists the concerts, meetings and other events that the Great Hall hosts, even including English country dancing. “You see, we do let the English in here now and then,” she says slyly.
Here I need to express my bafflement as to whether animosities still exist between Ireland and the Irish — the formerly colonized — and Great Britain and the English — the former colonizers. I’m more aware of how travel writing has evolved in a postcolonial age since reading a chapter from The Location of Culture by Homi K. Bhabha, who is interested in how national narratives spring from multiple stories on the margins of society. Did Irish stories that were part of “minority discourse,” as Bhabha terms it, only come to the fore after independence from the mighty Great Britain?
Maybe, though, Anne and other Irish-Americans continue a mock hatred for the British because it plays well in conversation and sparks a laugh. Anyway, I receive a quick lesson about the Easter Rising of 1916, “when England left Ireland to the Irish.”
As we move along the walls of the Great Hall, I admire the ornately decorated céilí dance dresses on display, and then we stop at a landscape mural — mostly green, of course — reprising the legend of Dunluce Castle and its descent into the sea.
My second docent, Peggy, wants to know a bit about me, too. We find out we have Chicago in common. She grew up there, and Chicago is the place my paternal grandfather immigrated to from Germany. She recalls her mother’s stories of living in Ireland and learning to cook by boiling everything. As a child, Peggy ate boiled potatoes, boiled meat, boiled carrots, and so on, as she points to the black kettle and hearth that helps re-create Irish countryside life from the 1860s.
We are in the center’s Irish cottage, which was built to replicate a heritage site in County Clare. In the small bedroom is an antique bed and a genuine 19th-century loom. Peggy explains to me what a St. Brigid’s Cross is; there’s one hanging above a doorway, and to me, it resembles a God’s eye — although straw and not yarn — from the indigenous people of Mexico. St. Brigid is the patron saint of women hoping for a child, Peggy tells me. At the photos of Phoenix politicians who urged building the center, she offhandedly mentions that one of the Lord Mayors of Donegal was Jewish.
I have to say, even in the awkward moments of my tour, I’m delighted by the stories I hear, for the way they bring Irish customs and beliefs to life. I leave with a greater appreciation for the many things woven into Irish heritage, from music and dance to religion and food. Which are not unlike the ethnic cornerstones of Jewish heritage.
So let’s raise a glass to the unexpected common ground between Irish-American and Jewish-American heritage. You say, “Sláinte!” and I’ll say, “L’chaim!” Or vice versa.
Disclaimer: I wrote this blog with a tip of the hat to 18th-century women travel writers such as Isabella Bird and Mary Kingsley (see Bassnett), which means that I took a wee bit o’ liberty with the order of things and with exact quotes, in order to give my account a more narrative feel.