I grew up in a small city in northeastern Pennsylvania. For many years, Wilkes-Barre's major industry was coal mining. It was a dangerous job and if you survived 'til retirement age, you had only a slow, choking death from black lung disease to look forward to. Since the mines consumed the lives of so many men, there was a constant stream of immigrants entering the Wyoming Valley to keep the anthracite flowing.
Most of the immigrants came from Europe. As disaster struck a particular country, hundreds of of its poorest citizens would come to the Wyoming Valley looking for mining jobs. Irishmen, Italians, Poles, Russians, Germans, Czechs, Lithuanians, and many other countries sent huddled masses yearning to breathe free. Immigrants tended to stick together, so that all of the men from one village or region would live in the same neighborhood, maintaining as much of their home culture as they could.
When I grew up in the 1960s and 70s, ethnicity was still felt very strongly in Wilkes-Barre. Kids would ask each other "What are you?" meaning "From which poor European country did your ancestors come?" and the answer would be "Polish!" "Italian!" "Irish!" "Lithuanian" or whatever it happened to be (except for my high school calculus teacher Miss Owens, who if she heard someone ask "What are you" would snap "You're American!"). There was an immediacy and an importance to one's ethnic identity that probably came from being second- or third-generation Americans in a geographically insular place.
My father had a keen sense of his Polishness and even though he had a smidge of German blood in him, he always identified himself as a Polish-American. He was always very proud of his Polish heritage and never hesitated to tell people about the famous Poles who'd contributed to society: Copernicus, Kosciusko, Madame Curie, Chopin. (We were probably the only people on our block to have a framed photograph of Copernicus in our basement rec room. I am not joking.) My mom, whose father's family was Lithuanian, and whose mother's family was a mishmash of things, having not been part of the coal-miner-immigrant waves of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, never seemed to care that much about what she was, although she could tell you she was Pennsylvania Dutch, English and French, as well as Lithuanian. So when my brother and I were asked "What are you?" we usually answered "Polish." When people would go all faux-Irish on St. Patrick's Day and ask me why I wasn't wearing green, I'd say "Because I'm not Irish."
Except now I'm not so sure.
When I started tracing my family's genealogy, I discovered that my grandmother had a grandmother named Susan Kinney. Her father was Daniel Kinney and her mother was Mary Freeman. "Kinney" is a Gaelic name, and is cited as being Scottish, Welsh and/or Irish in origin. "Freeman" could be many things -- German, Anglo-Saxon or an Anglicized version of a French, German or Irish name.
It can be tricky in genealogy to make assumptions about where a family came from based on name alone. (Consider the story, probably a tall tale, of the Jew named Sean Ferguson, allegedly because when asked his name at Ellis Island, the frazzled man answered “Shoyn fargesn," meaning "I've forgotten.") Until I find more information on two people forgotten by history -- Daniel P. Kinney, born around 1814 in New Jersey, and Mary I. Freeman, born around 1822 in Salem Township, PA -- I won't know for sure whether I need to put on an Aran sweater, a kilt or maybe even the red dragon of Wales. Whatever it is, I hope it doesn't clash with my
Polish eagle sweatshirt.