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Published March 16 2012

Irish roots: Anne Moynihan recalls spending youth in her home country, Ireland

FARGO - For some, St. Patrick’s Day calls to mind visions of green beer, tacky shamrock headbands and teeny, orange-haired men dancing near an elusive pot of gold.

But at least one among us sees this day in its true, emerald-emanating light.

Anne Moynihan, Fargo, is Irish through and through, from her fair hair and freckles to her lilting brogue. A book lover who now inhales stories daily at her job as a library assistant downtown, she lived and breathed green growing up in Ireland in the 1960s.

Some of her earliest memories even contain flashes of honest-to-goodness seamróg, or shamrock as we know it.

“St. Patrick’s Day was a national holiday, and on that day each year, I would go out to the roadside and get a kitchen knife and dig up some shamrocks,” she said. After bringing them inside to wash off the dirt, she’d form them into “an attractive sprig of shamrock” that would be worn on the lapel of a shirt.

The smallest children would wear something less fragile – ribbons bearing the national colors of green, white and gold, along with a harp symbol.

The shamrocks themselves are symbolic, Anne said, pointing in general to the faith of the people, and in particular to the Trinity; the three leaves representing three persons in one God.

Catholic Mass with a special St. Patrick’s Day liturgy would provide the focal point of the day and include some of her favorite hymns like “Faith of Our Fathers,” “Hail Glorious St. Patrick” and, in Gaelic, “Dochas Linn Naomh Padraig.”

Little Anne, youngest of four siblings and a member of the church choir with her mother, Mary, joyously added her voice to the chorus, and joined her family at home afterward for a traditional Irish meal.

“My mom made Irish stew, and we might have had stewed apples and custard for dessert and some brown bread,” she said. “And while my mom never drank, my father might have a bottle of Guinness – or a glass of stout or porter as we called it.”

At some point, they’d watch St. Patrick’s Day specials on television, or RTE – Raidió Teilifís Éireann, the public broadcasting service of Ireland.

Though the St. Patrick’s Day parade is an American adaption of the Irish celebration, she said, some major cities in Ireland had begun including the same in their festivities.

Anne enjoyed riding her bike around the countryside, taking Irish dance lessons and playing her mandolin.

Her musical talent came from both parents. Each day when work was done, there would be music. A self-taught musician, her father played saxophone and clarinet in a dance band in the 1930s and ’40s. Along with her mandolin lessons, Anne’s siblings took violin instruction, all from the same teacher, Miss Steepe.

Often humming a tune, her mother was someone who Anne said “was called on by neighbors in times of illness and death. She had a compassionate nature and excellent homemaking skills.”

But in time, at least some of the music dissipated when Anne’s siblings left for the golden land across the sea called America.

First to go were her sisters, Eileen and Margaret, who worked as nannies. Eventually, her brother, Bob – wooed away after a visit to New York for a hurling competition – joined them.

Though her parents also missed her siblings, during that time in Ireland, families accepted that if their children were to have any hopes of economic prosperity, they’d likely have to seek it overseas, Anne recalls.

War and loss were “part of the fabric of life in those times.” Still haunted by the War of Independence from Britain, the Irish were also touched by the Korean and Vietnam wars.

But having come into being during a time of transition, Anne experienced a different Ireland than her siblings had known, including a more industrialized atmosphere with greater educational opportunities.

Anne enjoyed learning, especially through the teaching style of her schoolmaster, Sean O’Sullivan, who she described as a wonderful storyteller who shirked textbooks in sharing Irish history.

His renditions of St. Brendan the Navigator, patron saint of sailors and travelers, captivated her, as did the stories of St. Patrick and his influence on Ireland.

Certain details remain with her, including the time St. Patrick, when baptizing a local king, inadvertently stabbed him in the foot with his crosier. “It was a very painful experience for the king but he tolerated it because he thought it was part of the ritual,” she said.

All of these faith stories and experiences followed Anne to America, where, at age 27, she was visiting her siblings following the death of their mother, and was introduced to a man named Peter – an American of Irish ancestry – at a party.

The two eventually married and brought into the world their son, Rory, now 22. All told, Anne’s time in New York spanned five years, and included experiencing the vibrant St. Patrick’s Day festivities there.

The first such celebration nearly brought her to tears, she said, at the sound of the “pipe bands” playing tunes she’d known as a child. “The bands are tremendous. It’s very colorful, and you realize the contributions that Ireland has made to this country,” she said. “It’s wonderful that we’re honored and remembered in that way.”

Though Anne enjoyed the Big Apple, the glitz of the city eventually gave way to her and Peter’s growing desire to raise their son in an area that more closely matched their values.

A search for a fitting home eventually landed the trio in Fargo, providing Anne with what she views as her second immigration experience, given North Dakota was like another foreign land altogether.

“The flatness was a culture shock,” she said, but something the family was willing to overlook in exchange for the gain. “The Plains has its own beauty as well, and around that time I read ‘Dakota: A Spiritual Geography’ by Kathleen Norris, which helped prepare me.”

Through the years, St. Patrick’s Day has remained a special celebration to the Moynihans. Peter and Rory have participated as runners in the local 5K run, and the family has marched in the parade downtown, proudly sporting a sign bearing their family name.

They remain grateful for the community they’ve come to call home. “We knew this was a community that shared our values. It’s a community with a strong immigrant history,” she said. “It’s similar to Ireland in that people aren’t assuming; rather, they’re friendly, though the Scandinavians are probably a little more reserved than the Irish, but with a hard work ethic.”

Having attained U.S. citizenship in 2004, Anne said she’s only been back to Ireland once since marrying. During that visit in 1998 she realized she had become a tourist in her own home country.

“It’s a strange experience, but once your parents are gone and your family home isn’t there, the major emotional pull is gone,” she said. “I’ll always be Irish, but in some sense, life is kind of a moving river and you’ve got to move with it.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Roxane Salonen at (701) 241-5587

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