By MITCH TRAPHAGEN
What does it mean to be anything in America today? Who are you? Do you define yourself by your homeland, whether modern or ancestral? Michigan or Pennsylvania, England or Germany?
Founding Fathers Washington, Jefferson, Adams and Madison didn’t seem to define themselves by their ancestry, but they certainly did so by their residency. All but Adams were Virginians, and that clearly meant something in the early days of our republic. Perhaps it could be said that their interests were American interests — they already knew the resources of this vast nation would someday propel it into the role of world leadership, and they meant for America to do well. But perhaps Virginia could do just a little bit better. President Washington, of course, superceded even Virginia, defining the American presidency for decades, and likely even into our time.
Everyone knows Benjamin Franklin, possibly among the most famous Founding Father to never have been president, and he is oft-considered the “First American.” He was born in Boston, but where was he from? Had you asked in his later years, his likely reply would not have been “British” but rather, “Pennsylvanian.”
So why, today, do we so often define ourselves by our ancestors a century or centuries long past?
Perhaps we have so successfully mashed together the huddled masses yearning to breathe free that we now have the luxury of looking back with the need to identify ourselves beyond simply “the masses.”
Friday is Saint Patrick’s Day, the traditional death date of Saint Patrick, the preeminent patron saint of Ireland, in roughly 461. Saint Patrick’s Day is a public holiday in not only both of the separate nations of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, but also in the Canadian provinces of Newfoundland and Labrador. It is rumored that Saint Patrick used the common three-leaf shamrock to explain the Christian Holy Trinity to the then-pagan Irish.
In the United States, Saint Patrick’s Day is nearly universally recognized and celebrated by those of all descents.
Which brings us back to our forebears and the topic of identifying ourselves by those long gone.
Nearly 37 million Americans identify themselves as being of Irish ancestry. What is remarkable about that statistic is that the Republic of Ireland, with Dublin as its capital, is home to less than five million people. The population of Northern Ireland, with its capital of Belfast, is home to less than two million people.
Even together, the entire population of the two nations would barely crack into the top five U.S. metropolitan areas, landing roughly alongside the Houston-Woodlands-Sugar Land, Texas Metropolitan Statistical Area.
New York City is home to the largest number of Irish-Americans in any U.S. city, making up more than 5 percent of the population. And for anyone living in or visiting the city, you’d be hard pressed to not encounter the significant influence of the relatively small island of two Irish nations. The strong Irish influence that began in America’s largest city in the 19th century, continues to this day across the spectrums of politics, law enforcement, education, finance and the arts.
I’ve long associated my ancestry as entirely German. My mother, born in rural South Dakota, spoke only German until that quickly went out of fashion when she was a child at the start of World War II.
My earliest paternal ancestor, Willem Traphagen, arrived in this country in 1652. A child of relative wealth in Germany, Willem escaped the ravages of the Thirty Years’ War to Amsterdam. Along with his wife and family, he sailed for the New World, paying in cash for their passage — a significant sum at the time. He arrived and was among 23 men who founded the city of Bushwick, now a neighborhood in Brooklyn. His son, William, later founded what is today the wealthy enclave and tourist destination of Rhinebeck, N.Y., along the Hudson River.
Willem lived into his 80s, spending the last four decades of his life here (except for one roundtrip home to Germany for family business matters. Again, no small or inexpensive feat). He didn’t seem to identify with Germany, per se, but appeared more than willing to identify with whomever was in charge at the time. During his time here, that was variably the Dutch or the British. From the collection of rather voluminous records he left behind, it seems likely that he could, at least minimally, speak and write in German, Dutch and English.
His family tree to my life is long, with numerous fascinating branches. Particularly in the early years, they were of German descent, often marrying spouses of German descent.
But then along came my great-grandmother, Agnes Dixon. Born in New York three years prior to the Civil War, she traveled as a young adult, likely with her parents, to the Midwestern frontier. She became the first schoolteacher in Brown County, South Dakota, a job she was forced to relinquish when she married my thoroughly German great-grandfather, Samuel Traphagen (I have a feeling Samuel didn’t mind, but schoolteachers were not allowed to be married in those days).
Agnes lived for nearly a century before passing away in 1955. My lineage from her line is very short and runs straight back to Ireland. Why is it so short? Because like Agnes, most of her forebears, lived extremely long lives. Her great-grandfather, James Dixon, was born in Ireland in 1731, moved to the nation that would decades later become the United States of America, nearly outliving both John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, passing away in 1823.
So who are you? You are German? Scottish? Irish? Floridian? In our efforts to find our way through the seemingly treacherous waters of the future, it seems more and more of us choose to look back for clues on what may lie ahead. And in doing so, perhaps we can define ourselves beyond the huddled masses.
There are a lot of Germans in my family. But for this week, perhaps longer, I’m choosing to honor my great-grandmother Agnes, her bravery in moving to the unknown frontier to educate children, her many accomplishments, and her Irish ancestry, which is now also mine.
And thanks to a good friend, Connie Roberts, Hofstra University professor, poet and author of the book Little Witness, written using an absolute mastery of the beauty of language to describe even dark and difficult times, as none other than the true and wonderfully talented Irish can do, my Irish name is, according to her, “Mick O’Hagen.”
You can call me Mick.
P.S. As for the “Kiss Me I’m Irish” part, in my case, that is directed more towards women than men. Okay, it’s actually directed entirely towards women. And where did that come from? Kissing someone who is Irish is considered the next best thing to kissing the stone at Blarney Castle. Which, according to legend, gave Cormac Laidir McCarthy, back in the 1440s, the gift of “eloquent speech.” Something he apparently used to his favor. Today millions of visitors to the castle hope for the same luck. Of the Irish. So to speak.