Through the Eyes of an Irishman
Interview with Jerry McCarren, conducted by Sydney Vollmer
Irish Cincinnati—it’s more than a place. It’s more than a group of people. It’s a culture. It’s a way of living. When Irish immigrants were flooding U.S. soil, Cincinnati is where many families ended up. It might not have been immediate, but within time, a large Irish population grew. The culture is less thick than it used to be, but still today, many people claim Irish roots. But what was it like growing up in a house where being Irish was a fact of life that was emphasized on a daily basis? I wanted to know. So I sat down with Jerry McCarren, a Delhi local who has known what it is to be Irish since as long as he can remember. In talking to him, I found out about traditional Irish values in an Irish-American home, what rituals were celebrated, and what it means to him to be a proud Irish-American. The full interview with Mr. McCarren can be seen below.
SV: What year were you born?
SV: Where did you grow up?
JM: Cincinnati. Price Hill, more specifically.
SV: Where did you attend school?
JM: St. William (in Price Hill), Elder High School (Catholic, all-boys school in Price Hill), and UC.
SV: Did you ever move as a child? If so, to where?
JM: No, well, that’s not entirely true. My mom and dad lived in an apartment at Covedale and Rapid Run. I was only 2 when we moved, and we never moved again. Though we were very Irish, most of my street was very German.
SV: Did the Germanic roots of your street have any impact on you?
JM: Not really. We kind of stood out on St. Patrick’s Day though.
SV: What did your family do for St. Patrick’s Day?
JM: Every St. Patrick’s Day, my mom would give us green orange juice first thing in the morning with green, frosted pastries. And we were the only kids in St. William’s school that had to wear a white shirt and a green tie on St. Patrick’s Day. And then we would have a traditional Irish dinner. [Mom] didn’t really like corned beef, but she would make a cottage ham with carrots, parsnips, and potatoes of course. We had that every St. Patrick’s day, unless it was a Friday in Lent.
SV: What is your personal Irish heritage?
JM: Well, my grandparent’s names were McCarren, Sullivan, Downey, and O’Connor. I’m about as Irish as you’re going to find.
SV: When did your ancestors first come to America?
JM: That’s a really good question. My mother always said her grandmother came over when she was 16 on a ship from Ireland, and she came into New York. [She] probably came over in the 1840s. Actually, kind of an interesting story. One of my mother’s ancestors and one of my father’s ancestors were from the same town in Ireland: Caherciveen. My father’s side of the family actually came from Northern Ireland, the county of Armagh.
SV: When were you first introduced to your heritage?
JM: I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t. Certainly by the time I was in school. My mother was a proud Irish woman.
SV: What about your dad?
JM: It wasn’t as big a deal to my dad.
SV: Do you identify as an Irish-American? Why or why not?
JM: Yes. Because my mother made it a point of instilling that in me when I was a very small child. She was always telling me things about Irish history, and we had Irish plaques all around our house that had Irish things on them, like “May the Lord take a liking to you, but not too much and not too soon,” or, “May you be in heaven a half hour before the devil knows you’re dead,” or the Irish toast, “May those who love us love us, and those who don’t, may God turn their hearts. And if He doesn’t turn their hearts, may he turn their ankles so we’ll know them by their limping.”
SV: What sorts of Irish traditions did you practice?
JM: Mainly foods. Our Catholic faith was also a big part of being Irish. As we got older, my mom was in St. William’s choir and they would always have a St. Patrick’s Day cabaret, like the Elder High School glee club does now. It was mostly quiet at our house. There weren’t too many kindred spirits in the neighborhood. As we got older, that changed some. Murphy’s and Kelly’s moved in. But we didn’t really do a lot of outward celebrating. Except, like I said, we were forced to go to school in white shirts and green ties. The four McCarren boys were loud and proud. When I was in 5th grade I had to sing “MacNamara’s Band” for everyone, because I was one of the few Irishmen in the class.
There was one movie in particular called The Long Grey Line, and my mom used to watch it all the time. It would always make her cry. Then she got me hooked on it. It’s about an Irish immigrant who is stationed at West Point and he brings his entire family over from Ireland. [TV stations] used to play it around St. Patrick’s Day. My mom was a huge supporter of John Kennedy. She pretty much thought he walked on water. It really broke her heart when she found out some of the bad stuff down the road. I remember her crying when he was assassinated—the first Irish-Catholic president.
SV: What about any strong Irish beliefs?
JM: My mother wasn’t too fond of the English. I’ll just put it that way. In fact, her mother, when she was really mad at somebody would say, “The curse of Cromwell on you.”
SV: How do you think your life would have been different if you weren’t Irish?
JM: That’s a hard one. It’s hard for me to even imagine not having an Irish heritage. Probably nothing would have been different, except the celebration on St. Patrick’s Day and being proud of my heritage. From the time I was old enough to remember everything, I was an Irish-American kid. My mom would always point out different Irishmen who were very successful at what they did, and how certain people would help Irish come over and get them settled. Jobs that are still heavily populated by Irish are police and firefighters. They were the jobs they could get. I think the discrimination is one reason the Irish community really came together. To help give each other a leg up.
SV: Have you ever traveled to Ireland? If so, where did you go? What was your favorite part?
JM: Yes I have. We went to Caherciveen, Kerry, we stayed in Tipperary, and we went to Kilkenny, Cork, and Dublin, and points in between.
SV: What was your favorite part?
JM: That’s a tough one…I guess I would say Dublin. We were only there for a few days. We went to the Guinness Tour, Trinity College, St. James Church, Temple Bar District. I liked everything there. We didn’t get to some of the more historical sites.
SV: Was traveling to Ireland everything you expected it to be? What was the same? What was different?
JM: Overall, yes. I had always heard how beautiful the country was and it certainly lived up to that reputation. A lot of the people in Ireland now are not Irish. A lot of the places we went, the servers were Russian, Polish, German, and so on. That was a little disappointing. The pubs weren’t as lively where we were. No spontaneous singing. I really wasn’t disappointed with anything, other than the fact we didn’t get to go everywhere we wanted to go. I think you could easily spend 10 days in Dublin and still not see everything there is to see. We went to a place called Powerscourt. It had the most beautiful gardens, one after another. Trying to get directions was one thing. They seem to take great pleasure in sending you to the wrong place, especially in Dublin. On the other hand, some of the people were super helpful. We were in traffic and one man saw were in a rental car. He stopped, said “follow me,” and took us where we needed to go.
SV: What about being Irish have you passed on to your children?
JM: A lot of the same things my mom passed onto me. Hopefully I instilled some pride in them of their heritage and their grandmother did the same thing.
SV: When you get together with your family now is it still very Irish?
JM: We don’t get together on St. P day like we used to. Everyone has gone their separate ways on that. We celebrate in our own way. Mostly it’s because of schedules.