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.”

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Detail from the Dunluce Castle mural in the Great Hall.

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.

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Glinda, one of the three docents who led me on a tour, in the old Irish cottage at the center. Unfortunately, I didn’t get much of a chance to with Glinda.

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.

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The McClelland Library is designed to resemble a tower from a Norman castle.

 

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.

 

 

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14 thoughts on “My warm welcome into Irish culture

  1. Deborah, I love how you describe the connections between the two cultures and the surprises you had during this tour. I am trying to use this course as an excuse to see some of the local sights I have somehow never gotten around to seeing in Denver, so your blog has given me some needed hope for the “travels” I have planned for tomorrow! Your narrative flows nicely, so the liberties you’ve taken work in that way. I wonder if you might want to use the images you include at the end throughout the blog instead. Since it is a longer narrative, it might help to break up the text a bit for your readers. This post is really engaging because of the details you include as well as the structure. Thanks for sharing! –Dawn

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  2. Hey Deborah,
    I really appreciate your narrative style here. I felt like I was walking through the exhibits with you from your detailed descriptions and great vocabulary. I like that the questions of our blog instructions were answered, but it didn’t feel like an assignment. They way you connect your heritage to the unknown Irish was honest and thought-provoking. I like how you didn’t omit the awkward moments of your tour; it gave the post credibility. My only suggestion would be to try to move the pictures to where they apply in your narrative. It would break up the long text and give your reader a clear view of what you are describing. Great job!
    -Kimberly Strong

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    1. Hi Kimberly — Thanks for your suggestions. My tour wasn’t the first time that strangers have quizzed me about my heritage. I don’t mind, but I would imagine that many immigrants to this country get untimely and even rude questions sometimes.

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  3. Thanks, Dawn. I think I’ll fiddle with the photos, like you say. Good idea. Have fun in your Denver explorations. I remember my hometown well, plus I visit family there every summer.

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  4. Deborah,
    Excellent! This entry is so engaging–dialogue, imagery, voice, context, etc. While your title glimpses one of your themes, “warm thoughts,” it prevails throughout your narration. Your introduction immediately unveils the highlights of your experience. I see the reception, feel your emotions, and understand your vision of the world: “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. . . .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. . . .I chide myself over waiting so long to visit the center, . . .travel writing has goaded me into doing so,” the evidence that envelops your main points and reflect your research–discovery of self and commonalities among cultures. This is what traveling is all about as you reveal: “‘I’m Jewish, and my parents emigrated from South Africa and Germany.'”
    “‘Ohhhh, then there’s a lot you can relate to here’ . . .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.”

    Then, you wrap it up with such eloquence: “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.” The message behind, “Or vice versa” validates that you understand “the context of the blog,” and it did not escape me. The images prove how wonderful your experience was.

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    1. Thanks for your sweet words, Janise. You probably have experienced this too, where you live: You keep thinking you’re going to get around to seeing a hometown sight, and then the years go by … until you finally make the time.

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  5. Hi Deborah Ross,

    My name is Nathan and I am in the English 626 class that is obligated to review blogs from your course. Please feel free to email me with any questions at nathan.bollig@nau.edu since I will not be revisiting your blog to view any follow-up comments you might make.

    First off, excellent blog title here. I thought your word choice worked well to give readers a sense of the discussion to be had, and it also suggested that you would not be the “sole traveler” for this blog post. The idea of a “warm welcome” also makes it clear that this will be a positive experience.

    For your introduction, you start off with a specific location, which really helps readers locate your current place as well as your state of mind. The in media res technique here works well and is not confusing because of the additional information you continue to disseminate to readers, such as your reference to your blog’s purpose as whole; excellent job making that connection clear, especially since I am a first-time reader of your blog.

    Your final note about the narrative style you worked with to shape your blog post was among the most interesting points you’ve made, and I believe the style was a success. Not only do you slowly uncover some of your personal history and its connections to Irish-Americans, but you develop a complete story in the end that includes a rising action and denouement.

    The one major improvement I would recommend for future posts would be to consider integrating your photographs throughout the blog post as opposed to only at the beginning and the end. By doing so, I think you may be able to give readers some visuals that will add to some of the descriptions and discussions you detail. For example, Glinda is not mentioned in your blog post, but only referred to in a caption. It may have been more successful had you included her in your post and also considered placing her image right above or below that reference.

    Lastly, I noticed a reference to Homi Bhabha and really appreciated the added value it brings to your discussion. I’m not sure if you have heard of Chimamanda Adichie or will cover it in your class, but her TED talk on the “the danger of the single story” may be of interest to you as you continue to find your identity in different ways through your travels. Check it out here.

    Great work,

    Nathan
    nathan.bollig@nau.edu

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  6. Hi Deborah,

    I just love your blog posting, and not because I am partial to anything talking about Ireland. Well, that might be a small part of it but really you have a great way of telling a story while giving concrete information.

    I thought your voice was friendly and personal. You nicely set up the opening and location in an engaging way by giving information about the center. I laughed at your comment that it is scorching hot and you are the only one there for a tour. I thought the inclusion of dialogue was great. Did any of the docents have an Irish accent or a little bit of the Irish brogue?

    I enjoyed the narrative of how your Jewish background has similarities with Irish history. It certainly does show that they want to make it personal for each visitor. The pictures were great and I liked seeing the captions. Your blog entry this week makes me want to visit the center.

    Thank you for sharing,
    Stefani Blaylock

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    1. Thanks, Stefani – No Irish brogue, I’m afraid. I got the sense that the gals have lived most of their lives in Phoenix. Just goes to show the variety of people you can meet here.

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  7. Hi Deborah,
    I really enjoyed the read of this blog. It flowed smoothly, and you did a great job of blending the narrative with the conversation. I enjoyed how you showed where two cultures have more in common than once thought and how you learned what your ancestors have in common.
    I like that you included photos, but perhaps you could move a few around. After mentioning your tour guide, it would be nice to see her right below to help visualize your journey.
    The art as well would fit nicely with the text where you mention it.
    Sounds like a great museum, thank you so much for sharing.
    -Melissa

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    1. Thanks, Melissa. I just had to include that photo of Glinda with the emerald green shirt, even though I didn’t talk with her for very long. They all really did make me feel welcome.

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  8. Deborah,
    I enjoyed your story very much.
    In the story, you mentioned 3 docents but only 2 gave you the tour? It was not clear.
    Also, I think it would be a good idea to add a title or a picture when talking about tour guide number 2? It was a little confusing.
    As per the articles you introduced from your class, The Location of Culture by Homi K. Bhabha, I felt it was a little disconnected. I understood what you were trying to say, but I was more interested in the Irish/Jewish relationship.
    I liked the Holocaust comparison and your description. It was very touching!
    Finally, the pictures are very nice but should not be at the end. I think it will be better to have them as part of the story.

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  9. Deborah-

    Great post. The flow and organization was great, and you sprinkled in quotes to draw the reader in. I also thought your integration of heavy reading material with your personal experience was wunderbar.

    I do wonder if you could more completely connect/compare your personal history with the Irish one of colonialization. It was interesting, and couple definitely be expanded a bit.

    Thanks for sharing!
    Katrina

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