March 17 is an American holiday to commemorate St. Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland. Although it was not originally celebrated in Ireland, this day is important to Irish immigrants as a way to remember their heritage.
And it’s one that I have never celebrated. Until recently.
As with most oral family histories, mine was shared by relatives who spent time digging through genealogical records. I knew that my Dad’s side was German & English, and my Mom’s side was mostly English (my Grandmother is a descendant of the first King of England, Egbert of Wessex).
But that’s where my identity ended. Mostly English, with a German surname from my Dad’s side.
My children started asking more specifics: “What percentage English are we?”
Out of curiosity, I began researching my family’s records a bit deeper. It turns out that online genealogy records provide a treasure trove of historical data: from grave records, copies of deeds and ship manifests, and stories. So many stories.
In my research, I finally discovered the origins of several family lines that we had assumed were straightforward. It turns out that on my Mom’s side, instead of “plain old English,” we have ancestors from France, Belgium, Wales, Norway, and Sweden.
But one of the most fascinating stories is that of my Irish relatives.
In 1718 in County Tyrone, Northern Ireland, my great-x7 grandfather John Hurd Jr. bid his beloved wife, Margaret McDonald Hurd, a sad goodbye. She died at just 40 years of age and left John with their 11 children.
As the story goes, he was a religious man, but things got hard when the Church of Ireland started requiring tithes. When a tithes collector walked on his property to demand payment, my fiery Irish ancestor stood his ground.
I can imagine him responding:
“Get off me land! Dear Maggie’s gone, and I’ve got eleven mouths to feed. So NO MORE money for ye!”
We’re told that John drove the tithes collector off his land with a pitchfork, and because of this he and his family were cut off from the church. He was likely also cut off from the support of his neighbors, his livelihood, and the town in which they lived.
So John made the hardest decision of his life: Stay in Ireland as a widower with 11 hungry children and no support, or board a ship for the New World.
He chose the latter and left with ten of his children in 1719, leaving his oldest son (my ancestor Stephen) behind to close out his affairs. They eventually settled in Georgia and built a stockade called Fort Heard, named after them. All of John Hurd’s sons fought in the Revolutionary War. But I’m sure they never forgot their beloved Ireland.
So it is with great excitement that, for the first time in my life, I can now say I’m part Irish. For years, the month of March didn’t mean anything to me; but now I have a renewed appreciation of Irish stew, soda bread, and that delicious pint of Guinness beer. Saint Patrick’s sacrifices as a Scottish missionary to Ireland have an added significance.
But the deeper meaning is my perspective change. When you become aware of a new reality that conflicts with an old way of thinking, it can be difficult to accept. It’s natural to want to separate our understanding of the past and present into compartments: “My family is from these few countries, and I celebrate these specific holidays.”
But what if you become aware of news that shakes up that reality?
In my work with clients, I help them to uncover vulnerabilities in their company’s direction, structure, or decision-making. The most fulfilling changes happen when executive leaders begins to welcome bad news. This means that she or he is willing to accept difficult feedback that their staff or customers have been thinking but not sharing with them. This process is so painful that it often takes several weeks to make the mental shift to “I want to know what’s going wrong.”
As with any big transition, the most difficult part is being open to something that is unknown. The unknown scares us. It could be threatening or cause us harm. But often, stepping into that unknown provides an opportunity to expand beyond our visual field: to see past the blind spots that keep us from experiencing the world in a fuller way.
I’ll be entering the unknown as I celebrate a new (to me) holiday.
Happy Saint Patrick’s Day to you!
Grace LaConte is a business consultant, writer, workplace equity strategist, and the founder of LaConte Consulting. Her risk management tools are used around the globe, and she has successfully reversed toxic work environments for clients in the healthcare and non-profit fields. Grace specializes in lactation law compliance & policy development, reducing staff turnover after maternity leave, and creating a participatory work culture.