Angela Alaimo O’Donnell is a poet and professor at Fordham University in New York City where she teaches English, Creative Writing, and American Catholic Studies. Her most recent book of poems, Waking My Mother, a collection of elegies focused on the relationships between mothers and daughters. has been published by Word Press in Fall 2013. Her previous book, Saint Sinatra & Other Poems (May 2011), was been nominated for the Arlin G. Meyer Prize in Imaginative Writing.
Angela has had a few flirtations with the notion of “Being Irish.” Given that March seems to belong to the Irish, she has written a brief essay, along with a suite of poems she wrote called “Crossing Irish.” The poems are devoted to the theme of wanting to be Irish.
By Angela Alaimo O’Donnell
As a child, I never wanted to be Irish. This was a convenient circumstance, since I wasn’t. (My Irish name is my husband’s gift to this Sicilian girl.)
Then I grew up and fell in love with poetry—English poetry first, then American poetry, and then, finally, fully, fatally, I fell in love with Irish poetry. The yearning of Yeats, the wicked wit of Kavanagh, the heart and heft of Heaney—all of them spoke to me, or rather, sang to me, in voices that were at once distinctly their own and also the collective voice of their common clan. It was then that I wanted in.
This itch to be Irish only got worse when I visited Ireland for the first time. Once our plane set down on Shannon’s tarmac (holy ground), once we got in our rental car and started driving across the glorious West of Ireland, I recognized the landscape as though it were my own. Irish poetry—with its deep rooting in the past, its mists of memory, its hard love of the hard land—had claimed me, planted in me the bizarre belief that I belonged to Ireland. I felt a sense of homecoming I’ve felt in only one other place in the world—Sicily, my true ancestral island from which my grandparents emigrated 100 years ago.
Though Ireland & Sicily might seem to have little in common—one ruled by rain, the other sun—they share much: a rich history of miraculous happenings; a penchant for saint-making; a fierce pride in their separateness, their exiled state; a wild & wonderful language that makes ordinary English and Italian sound strait-jacketed, tied-up, and tame.
As a child, I never wanted to be Irish. Now, as an adult, I do (oh, I do).
Happily, as a poet, I’ve found a way to claim this invented identity—or, at least, to imagine it—through poetry. The poems that follow belong to a series called, “Crossing Irish,” a suite of poems I wrote five years ago during another visit to that Island of the Blessed. For all of you Irish readers out there, I hope this Italian-American wannabe’s work might not seem presumptuous. For all of you non-Irish readers who are also lovers of Ireland—well, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about.
ON NOT BELONGING TO IRELAND
Our Aer Lingus flies through Irish skies,
and I know I’m not at home
well before my feet touch the Tarmac.
Filing into Shannon, we take our places
in the long line of Irish ex-pats
whose cousins left as hopeful as they arrive.
Here I am clear extra, exotic
by Irish measure, if not New York’s,
my dark hair and olive hands a sign.
You don’t look Catholic, says the ex-priest
who left Queens and his cassock behind
for this spot at Hughes’ bar, An Spidéil.
Italian—or Jew—what’s the difference?
says the glint in his Irish eye.
Nothing of you begins here, where we do—
his American accent stronger than mine,
me with my traitorous poet’s ear
who loves all music better than my own.
At two weeks’ end, I’ll speak with a lilt,
the song of the Island sown in my dreams,
my foreign heart more native than she seems.