With the name Maeve Donovan Sheehey, my Irish heritage is obvious to most people. I am proud of my name and roots 365 days a year, but there is only one day when I can go to literal parades celebrating my Irishness with thousands of other Irish Americans.
St. Patrick’s Day began in Ireland as a low-key cultural celebration, which Irish immigrants later morphed into a major day of festivals in America. Today the holiday is less about the Christianization of Ireland and more about people’s pride in being Irish-American — which for a resoundingly long time in American history was not cause for celebration.
The Donovan side of my family came to this country during the Irish Potato Famine, when John O’Donovan left County Cork for New York City and dropped the “O” in his last name for the sake of Americanization. He secured one of the relatively few jobs available to immigrants at the time, doing heavy lifting and construction, but found himself unemployable once he fell into a manhole on the job and broke both his arms.
I know little about the other side of my family, except that they also came to New York from County Cork and their name was “Sheehy” until they added an extra “e” for some unknown reason. It may have been to seem more American, though adding an “e” to sound less Irish soon revealed itself to be a fool’s errand.
I include my family history because when my great-great grandparents came to this country, being Irish was something to hide — not celebrate. It was also incredibly dangerous. In fact, the O’Donovans held a wake for John once he left County Cork because they were so sure he would die either on the journey to America or once he got here.