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Clinging to Clanship

Postcard from Cork County, Ireland

By Margaret M. Rossman

COUNTY CORK, Ireland—Since Ireland is one of the most Catholic countries in the world and I’ve missed one mass too many, it’s probably a good time for confession. I’m only 25 percent Irish. Now, don’t worry, it’s not a mortal sin—I have never tried to pass myself off as anything more. But the combination of my full-Irish grandmother and my preoccupation with Irish culture is enough to convince everyone that I’m at least half Irish. And, though this might seem like a slight difference, my friends are shocked that my obsession isn’t justified genetically. Yet what they don’t understand is that my connection to Ireland lies not as much in blood as in belonging.

It’s easy to gravitate towards one side of your heritage when the other’s roots are far less clear—I’m a European hodgepodge on my father’s side. But Ireland also appeals to me with its history of dance, drink and the intoxicating notion of clanship. Besides evoking memories of long ago battles and ruthless warriors, a clan name has intrinsic meaning. When someone says “O’Dea,” my ears instantly perk up and I want to explore another tie to the long-lost relation.

This desire seems to hold true for others, too. Any time a fellow Irish descendant is greeted, his or her Irish name is sought out, if it is not immediately apparent. One of my sixth-grade teachers continuously made a point of mentioning to everyone that she was an “O’Day”—the alternate spelling of O’Dea—and that she and I were in fact, related. This sense of being a true relative of any person in your clan can be a little burdensome at times—last summer, I met a friend of a friend who was also an O’Day, and I conveniently neglected to tell him that the O’Day’s and O’Dea’s were one and the same, since I was not yet sure if I wanted to deem him a part of my clan.

Returning to Ireland has been something of a clanfest, highlighted by my journey to see the O’Dea Castle. Actually more of a feudal tower, I pranced about it with a sense of ownership, and I imagine at least a few of the O’Dea/O’Day visitors in the guestbook came to stake their own claim to this ancestral abode. Crossing the country to visit relatives—cousins once or many times removed—presents me with open arms and hugs from people only rarely seen. What begins as an awkward greeting ritual soon becomes so natural that you become the one initiating all the affection. At one point, I sat in the house of one of my grandmother’s cousins while she ripped out old picture after old picture from her personal photo album, choosing to pass on these images so we can study the faces of our far-extended family that we have never met and keep track of them all.

Clanship is simply an extension of the kinship that is found every time we visit Ireland. The local doctor treats us like one of her longtime patients on first visit, while my great uncle’s friend’s wife welcomes us to her bed and breakfast as if we were old family friends. I feel at home in Ireland because I’m treated as if I am home.

Yet a common name is not necessary to make a clan, as recent experience has proved. I came here on the heels of babysitting children for the 25th reunion of the Harvard Class of 1979, and talking to a few alums reveals the connection you have to people many years removed from the Harvard experience. Meeting a Harvard alum offers a sense of solace and familiarity. House affiliation is usually the next question asked, and you may develop a further connection if the new acquaintance is part of your clan-within-a-clan. Various House wars and rivalries solidify this warrior nature. While one would hope that hospitality is offered regardless of social ties, there is something about being joined by a common quality that produces a special sort of acceptance.

History has proven that group mentality produces its share of problems and feuds exist even within clans. Yet kinship is still a valuable state of mind. In the isolation that often comes in an advancing world, a desire for something more than a friendship occurs. A clanship forces you to belong, as it presents you with a role to add to your inner resume. Though Ireland is moving forward into the Americanized world—the discovery of a cell phone in every kid’s pocket and a McDonald’s on several streets confirms this—it has still retained the most important part of its foundations.

My mission to buy every item I can find with “O’Dea” on it will doubtless continue—Ireland certainly understands how to profit from its clanship—though I’ll try to refrain on the Harvard paraphernalia for now. With clanship comes a certain clan conceit, and it is this pride—and a little bit of conspicuous consumption—that fosters the bonds. So while I feel connected because I’m an O’Dea, I would still be accepted without a drop of Irish blood; it is this mindset of a clanship, not the logistics, that gives it worth.

Margaret M. Rossman ’06, an English concentrator in Mather House, is an associate editorial chair of The Crimson. She is soaking in her Irish heritage by drinking pints of Guinness and eating pounds of potatoes, though she swears that she will actually spend more time working this summer than traveling—if only barely.

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