St. Patrick’s Day has traditionally been a holiday for Americans of Irish descent to take time to appreciate and acknowledge their heritage and ancestry. Through the years, however, many have come to adopt a 24-hour long Irish pedigree, regardless of generations before them, opting to take part in a festive celebration of binge drinking and sporting green clothing.
However, for at least one local Irishman, St. Patrick’s Day brings with it a simplistic, yet nostalgic quality.
Brendan McNamee was reared in a small home in a portion of Northern Ireland called Upper Gallon. With 11 others in the household, and a handful of farmhands and peers coming and going each week, life in Upper Gallon was always anything but boring.
From an early age, McNamee knew he wanted to work with his hands. His grandfather saved his money and purchased land a few acres at a time, as families emigrated from Ireland. With nearly 1,400 acres, he raised livestock and crops, turning them around each season to support the family.
Though he helped to tend the farm, McNamee also began small construction projects in the area, designing feed troughs, windows and doors for his home and neighboring farmers. They found it cheaper to purchase the wood and tools alone and have McNamee assemble them.
He became a prodigy, installing windows and frames as early as his preteens. He later studied construction and contracting through college in Ireland, as well. A friend convinced him that there was a much better opportunity waiting in America, and in April of 1973, at the age of 21, McNamee made his move to Philadelphia.
Sure enough, he found plenty of work, and he moved to the Millville, Del., area in 1997, closer to the family of his wife, Tricia, who also has a strong Irish background. Tricia herself was raised in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Her family name, McCaffery, is among one of the most well-known in Belfast.
Once in Millville, McNamee started his own small renovation and construction business. A modest ad in the newspaper brought in an abundance of homeowners looking for a contractor for small projects — so much, in fact, that after only a few weeks, he had to cancel the ad. From there, his name and work circulated through word of mouth, and McNamee has been doing what he loves ever since.
His labor-intensive, family-oriented Catholic mindset stuck with him, and to this day, he said, many who know well the American version of the holiday are shocked to find what St. Patrick’s Day really means to him.
“It’s really very much a holy day in Ireland,” he said. “There, it’s a time for families to be together, but in the United States, it’s totally different.”
Many Irish entertainers and musicians flock to the U.S. for the holiday, due to the festive celebration the States have turned it into. Irish bands, such as the Irish Tenors, The Pogues, The Chieftains and The Craic, have all head to the U.S. for the holiday. Most have their eyes set on New York, Boston and Chicago, as they bring in large St. Patrick’s Day crowds. McNamee’s nephew, as well, is planning a tour around America with his band.
“Even Irish politicians come over to America for St. Patrick’s Day,” he added.
McNamee said that for recent March 17’s, he finds himself working more often than not.
“It’s hard for me to really get excited about the holiday,” he said. He attributes much of the drive for celebration of St. Patrick’s Day to second-generation Irish-Americans.
“It’s not really the first generation, like myself,” he said, referring to those who had come to the U.S. from Ireland at young ages and early adulthood. “Their descendents are the ones who really want to get out there and show that they’re Irish. That’s not to say that all of the people coming from Ireland don’t. For myself, personally, it wasn’t ever a big party day.”
McNamee claims that he never goes out of his way to sport green on St. Patrick’s Day. “People come up to me and ask, ‘Where’s your green?’” McNamee said. “I don’t need to wear it on my clothes — I wear it on my tongue. I don’t need to wear green to show I’m Irish.”
Despite a moderately tame observance for the holiday, McNamee is sure to pay tribute to his heritage. He said that while he may not be your stereotypical, belligerent Irishman, he still has a great pride for where he came from.
“There are two types of people in the world,” said McNamee, “those who are Irish, and those who wish they were Irish.” Paintings of Irish landscapes line the wall of his home. A stack of The Irish Echo, a weekly American Irish newspaper, accumulates in his family room.
He said he’s never had any problems with others over his national origins since coming to the United States, or in going around the world, for that matter. “I’ve been well-received wherever I go,” he said. “Everyone’s always really friendly. Americans have quite a fascination with the Irish heritage, almost like a love for the language and culture. They tend to get really excited here, just to hear you start talking.”
Happily married for 31 years, Brendan and wife Tricia carry on the traditions of their families growing up.
“We were always taught to do the right thing and keep your nose clean,” said McNamee. “Family’s very important. Everyone always respected each other, and everyone has managed to stay very close.”
This St. Patrick’s Day, the two plan to head to Florida. But since moving to the United States, McNamee boasts 45 separate visits to the island country that he still calls home.
“It’s always great to get back,” he said. “It’s absolutely gorgeous and I miss it terribly, sometimes. You never really look up and realize the beauty of Ireland until you leave it.”