With the surname O’Keefe, there never has been a question of our ancestral roots. My second great grandfather O’Keeffe left Ireland and came to America in 1832, a decade before the Potato Famine. We assume he was Catholic but no St. Patrick traditions were passed down to our family. Although we are not Catholic, we are proud to celebrate our Irish heritage on St. Patrick’s Day in our own way. But, what might Grandfather O’Keeffe think about it?
Family traditions on St. Patrick’s Day started in my family in the 1950’s. On St. Patrick’s Day my O’Keefe grandparents along with their children and their spouses went to a restaurant for an Irish Dinner. After the passing of my grandfather in 1962, that tradition ceased.
In 1984, my parents and siblings decided to begin a new St. Patrick’s Day tradition. My sister, Pat, lived out of state and started her own with her family which continues to this day. The remaining five Washington state siblings and their families consisted of about thirty and grew to over fifty. We had to stop the clan’s yearly St. Patrick’s Day tradition in 2008 due to crowded conditions. My children still celebrate it.
If Grandfather O’Keeffe had been allowed to leave Heaven for a day and take a peek at our celebration of his life and Ireland, he might not see all the connections.
Upon entering our home, he would have been overwhelmed with decorations of shamrocks, leprechauns, rainbows, pots of gold, shamrock plants, a poster of O’Keeffe Castle in Ireland and of course O’KEEFFE Coat of Arms. Green paper plates, cups and napkins and even green plastic forks made for easy clean up.
Of course, there was Irish music and some of the children performed Irish step dances they learned at school. Grandfather probably wouldn’t recognize the dance as it has evolved over the past two centuries.
We laid out books and maps on Ireland and related stories from O’Keefe ancestor history. Occasionally we had a quiz on ancestral data. Imagine as Grandfather closely checks out the green plastic forks and hears, “True or False: Was Grandfather O’Keeffe a constable but arrested for gambling?” He is horrified and wonders how we knew about his antics from almost 200 years ago. He doesn’t know one of his grandson’s researched the court records and that we know sadly, he died at age 40 of an infected tooth leaving his wife with a large family. Grandfather closes his mind to that arrest and checks out the St. Patrick’s menu.
Of course, the center of the celebration was the menu. My sister, Jackie, was in charge of the corned beef and cabbage. She would buy about 15 pounds of meat and either bake or boil it the day before the party. The next day, she heated it up with water and added cabbage, carrots, onions and small red or white potatoes. She then transported it thirty miles to the party.
Grandfather grimaces as he wonders why we are serving this. He thinks,”No respectable Irishman eats this. Where is the true Irish meal…bacon and beans and cabbage?”
This is true. Corned beef is an Irish-American dish. In Ireland, restaurants only serve corned beef to tourists on St. Patrick’s Day. Traditionally, pork was the favored Irish meat.
Jackie was also in charge of the lime Jello salad. Various recipes were used over the years including green shamrock Jello jigglers for the kids. Grandfather lifts a jiggler off the plate. “They actually feed this to their children? And why do they serve green moldy shamrock shaped bread with shamrock shaped butter pats?”
He then overhears Jackie talking about how she orders green colored bread from Albertsons for the event. He rolls his eyes. He is then attracted to the plate of chocolate candy in the shapes of shamrocks, pots of gold and leprechauns. He shakes his head in disbelief. “This is what my granddaughters waste their time on? They should be out planting potatoes and cabbage, and salting down the pork!”
Jackie was also in charge of the punch: Green River soda pop (hard to find) with 7-Up, pineapple juice, lime sherbet and the kids’ favorite ingredient…dry ice bubbling that produced a rising mist in the punch bowl. In the 80’s, we would have to travel 10 miles to the nearest distributor of dry ice. We would time it just right to get back in time for the party. Now we can go to our local Fred Meyers.
Grandfather mumbles, “We didn’t have those ingredients in Ireland. The only thing this has to do with Ireland is the mist of dry ice that looks like the mist that swept over Ireland and caused the potato famine. I am sure as children are staring at the punch bowl in awe, they aren’t thinking about the potato famine.”
I was in charge of creating pasties (past-tees). In the 1960’s I started collecting the Woman’s Day Encyclopedia of recipes. It has a detailed description of the art of creating a pasty. Everyone loves them but they are lots of work when you are feeding large numbers of guests. It is rolled out pie dough with layered meats and vegetables and herbs which are placed on one half of the dough. The other half is folded over and pinched together along the edges and slow baked. Only two or three will fit on a cookie sheet. Each guest received a third portion of pasty.
Now that we no longer cook for forty guests, we each get to have our own! Grandfather smells the pasties. “Hmm, they do smell good but I never saw one before. They are only eaten in Northern Ireland! I was from County Cork in the south. What does this have to do with me? And they are so much work. No wonder they are too tired to dance a jig afterwards.”
My other assignment was always Blarney Stones. This is a time consuming sponge cake cut into pieces, totally covered with butter frosting and rolled in peanuts to look like a stone. Everyone loves them. It was a fun project for the kids to make. Quite messy but worth it. I once had a hair dresser whose husband’s family used this same recipe. She said the adults would fight over who could have any leftover stones.
Grandfather looks at the heaping plate of stones. He had peeked in on his great great grandchildren the day before as they enjoyed themselves assembling the stones. He smiles and reflects. “Although this is an American recipe, not Irish, my grandchildren gather in the clan as I did with my siblings and cousins and enjoy their time together. They are even talking about me and I am 200 years old! They are great. This is what family is about. It is not the menu, it is the O’Keeffe Clan that continues into the future. I am proud to be Irish and proud of my great grandchildren. Ar scáth a chéile a mhaireann na daoine.”
Under the shelter of each other, people survive.
Last year my son, Michael, turned his garage into the O’Keeffe Irish Pub for a St. Patrick’s Day party. Although he didn’t serve our traditional menu due to fifty guests, the decorations certainly gave us the ambience of Ireland with a mural of St. Patrick, Ireland Flag and O’Keeffe Coat of Arms. I am sure Grandfather would have felt right at home. My parents always enjoyed our St. Patrick’s Day as the O’Keefe Clan gathered with over 30 grandchildren and 30 great grandchildren and friends.
I feel that it is important to connect with our ancestral past to appreciate their contributions to our lives. Although the Irish have suffered centuries of foreign invasions, they unified as clans and fought for freedom, finally celebrating victory in 1922. Today, we can gather on St. Patrick’s Day as friends and families and celebrate their legacy. Proud to be Irish!
May the Luck of the Irish Be With You