I sat staring at the porcelain platter in my hands for far too long. I did not need another platter. The delicate design painted onto its surface was not my style. Yet, it was beautiful, the fine crackled lines a roadmap across its surface. And flipping the plate over, I saw to where the roadmap led. Ireland.
My great-aunt and uncle traveled to Ireland numerous times. My great-uncle was consumed by a great need to discover our family’s roots, perhaps because his grandfather, whose name he shared, was the first to make the trek from Ireland to the United States. Unfortunately, he was not able to glean much information about him or other relatives of the same line. Thirty years after his death, I’m hitting many of the same walls. And nearly as consumed by that desire – though not in possession of a purse deep enough to do much about it save research from home.
So when I came across this beautiful platter made in Ireland, perhaps acquired on one their many trips, it was not just a plate, but a tangible link to my heritage. For not only have I never been to the homeland, but our family has no heirlooms from it. In mere moments, I formed an odd attachment to this piece of pottery because it’s really all I’ve got.
Then I realize, even that is more than my ancestors had.
Between the potato famine, extreme exportation of their own food stores, and their diaspora, the Irish came to America with virtually nothing. Reading “97 Orchard: An Edible History of Five Immigrant Families in One New York Tenement” by Jane Ziegelman, I learn that extended even to their culinary traditions.
“No other immigrant arrived in the United States with a culinary tradition as skeletal as the Irish. By the time of the Great Famine, three centuries of the landlord system had stripped it down to a single carbohydrate and a handful of condiments. Where Germans and Italians and Jews worked hard to perpetuate native food ways, the Irish peasant had little to preserve. Other immigrant groups used their native foods to establish a collective identity in the New World. Not so the Irish . . . they turned to religion, music, drama, and dance, among other cultural forms, to assert their identity and connect themselves with the past and each other.” (Ziegelman 59)
After the life they’d lived, they looked to things other than the material to sustain them.
The heirlooms my ancestors have left me are immaterial – in their composition, not their importance. They are stories, struggles. I know within my bones the legacy of my people. I’m calling on the lyrical muse of their lives when I write. When I laugh in the face of adversity so that I may not cry, I’m utilizing the gifts of their survival.
I still haven’t decided whether I’ll keep the platter. I’m still haunted by the phantoms of the past, but now I know their spirit lives on.