Local View: Forget; there are other ways to know you're Irish

From the column: "(Consider instead your) blood witnesses who embody ancient and universally accepted markers of Irish identity."

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Joe Heller

Though it has taken nearly a year, a resolution is finally within reach after last year’s shocking news that my birth family is not Irish.

Readers may recall my column here just before St. Patrick’s Day 2022 about my sister Nancy’s jarring discovery that the heritage we had been claiming, celebrating, and actualizing with our beliefs and practices for the previous 50 years, was, allegedly, a big fat lie (“ Lies, All Lies, But Still St. Patrick's Day ,” March 10, 2022). Scientists at broke the news to Sis that there wasn’t a single chromosomal strand of Irish in her DNA.

Understandably, my seven siblings succumbed to various states of pique and dissension. Kevin questioned Ancestry’s accuracy. James questioned our parentage. Kenneth questioned Nancy’s reason for getting tested. And they all questioned my reason for blabbing it to the world.

OK, maybe not quite the world, but a whole bunch of people in places where the story was printed, from the News Tribune to the Chicago Tribune and Pittsburgh Gazette, among others.

Emails poured in from all over. Readers commiserated, corroborated, or thought I was joking. (Would I?) The messages fell into one of three categories: readers with stories of their own DNA test nightmares; readers venturing hypotheticals for our family’s mistaken lineage, such as a secret adoption in a branch of the family tree; and readers assuring me the Irish “spirit” is what’s important, not DNA, though I could not always tell whether they were referring to culture or whiskey.


In the wake of the conflicting advice and misdirected sibling anger (toward me), the good news is I have seized upon a solution to propose to my kin:

My Dear Brothers and Sisters,

In keeping with a great American tradition, let’s “sue the bastards.”

How better to redress our grievances than in a court of law, where we can hold somebody responsible and make them pay. “Somebody,” of course, does not mean your loving baby brother who was only the messenger.

Instead, let’s hold's feet to the fire. Who, after all, caused the pain and suffering you all endured? The public embarrassment? The defamation of your character? Not to mention the collateral damage to others, such as my wingman, Ron O’Jerak, heartbroken that I can’t, in good conscience, join him on St. Paddy’s Day?

The thornier question, you’re probably thinking, is what’s the basis for the lawsuit? How, exactly, is Ancestry in the wrong? Doesn’t a defendant have to have “malice of forethought” or be negligent in some way? After all, every source consulted says their DNA testing is 99.5% accurate. Won’t such an indisputable statistic daunt our legal team?

Ha! About as much as sparrows frighten eagles, or a hare intimidates a lion, to paraphrase The Bard. That’s because DNA, my sweet and kind siblings, is at the very heart of our case. Think of the historic Scopes Monkey Trial, as dramatized in the classic film “Inherit the Wind,” in which famed attorney Clarence Darrow (Spencer Tracy) and evolutionary monkey science were pitted against William Jennings Bryan (Frederick March) and the Bible. And we all know how that turned out.

But instead of monkeys vs. good Christians, it will be vs. the Beleaguered McGraths. I can see it all now: Ancestry’s lawyers calling to the stand dozens of experts on chromosomes and recessive genes and such.


Meanwhile, we McGraths challenge the core of Ancestry’s claim that deoxyribonucleic acid is the determining factor for ethnicity by calling our blood witnesses who embody ancient and universally accepted markers of Irish identity:

"If it pleases the court, Your Honor,”we’ll say, “plaintiffs would like to enter into evidence Exhibit A: the grand Irish tenor singing voice of brother James, frontman for a rock band that toured Europe in the 1960s; Exhibit B: the positive spirit of youngest sister Nancy, so upbeat that she’d smile and wish Satan a good morning if he happened by; Exhibit C: the legendary Irish talent for humor and storytelling of McGrath middle child, Patrick; Exhibit D: the famed “Irish goodbye,” or first son Charlie’s self-assured way of vanishing from a party or happy hour, sparing everyone the prolonged farewells; Exhibit E: the gift of gab of brother Kenneth, whether at a wedding, the golf links, or a graveside; Exhibit F: the personal warmth of elder sister Rose, at whose home you must always stay for dinner; Exhibit G: the unfiltered sharp wit of brother Kevin, inspiring brawls in which he delighted to engage; and Exhibit G: David’s affection for Irish lagers and ales — primarily for medicinal purposes, of course."

And just as we are about to rest our case, Nancy and Rosemary can promenade up the aisle of the courtroom to the organist’s strains of “Tura, Lura, Lura,” while cradling a lacy pillow on which sits our late Dod’s green derby hat!

Just like “Miracle on 34th Street,” there won’t be a dry eye in the place.

Victory is assured — so long as teetotalers are excluded from the jury pool.

David McGrath is formerly of Hayward, is an emeritus professor of Native American literature at the College of DuPage in Illinois, and is a frequent contributor to the News Tribune Opinion page. He can be reached at

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David McGrath

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