LEGACY: legacy |ˈlegəsē|: noun ( pl. -cies)
• a thing handed down by a predecessor. Origin: late Middle English; from Old French legacie, from medieval Latin legatia ‘legateship,’ from legatus ‘person delegated’.
In the Oxford English dictionary, standing apart from the pronunciation and etymology of the word 'legacy', is a very simple and succinct definition, "a thing handed down by a predecessor". I think it's safe to assume that many people would say a legacy is a positive thing; however, what happens when a legacy is not a good thing? What happens when you inherit something which is socially unpalatable? What if the legacy of the people from whom you descend is not a legacy at all, but is a stereotype which does not touch your life, although many people assume it does? What if your assumed legacy is alcoholism?
Recently, I had to have a mammogram re-check. Anyone who has had mammogram associated 'issues' will relate, without me getting into any of the ugly details. The radiologist asked about my family background, and if there is a family history of breast cancer. I laughed nervously and answered quite honestly, "I don't know. I'm Irish and in my experience Irish families don't really discuss such matters". I answered in this way because, in my experience, Irish families don't. Some members of our Irish family seem to use a sort of code when talking about illness, referring to serious diseases using phrases such as 'the illness'. When my father died of lung cancer, a few members of our family referred to the cancer 'your dad's misfortune' or even the 'C word'.
The radiologist laughed when I said this and came back with a response I've heard too many times before. "Oh, come on", she said, "not even when they've had one too many beers at the pub?". Immediately I recognized an unmistakeable edge in my tone when I explained to her that, other than me, no one in my family drinks alcohol. My mother simply isn't interested; my elder brother tried alcohol when he was seventeen, and disliked it so much he never had it again. Occasionally I enjoy good red wine, and yes I might even have a half-pint or two of Guinness when I'm in Ireland. Seemingly incredulous she said, "Really? No one else in your family drinks?". It is clear that she does not believe me, and in truth it doesn't really matter what I say, because she has already decided who we are based on one word, IRISH.
I am Irish, and so this legacy comes to me.
A friend of mine is a psychiatrist. He calls alcoholism 'The Irish Disease'. Once, I asked him if he ever had an Irish patient who was an alcoholic. He said he didn't recall any Irish patients, but certainly did deal with people from Scotland and England who were alcoholics. He then explained that 'everyone knows' alcoholism is the Irish disease. I expressed surprise at the fact that he knows 'everyone', and then very sarcastically explained that, even assuming his contention might very well be true, the Scottish and the English are different ethnic groups from the Irish. Well from 'THAT' area of the world was his less than brilliant comeback.
The nation of Ireland has produced some of the greatest minds on the planet in the realms of literature and political philosophy, but it appears as though, at times, this is easily forgotten. The 'drunken Paddy' is always remembered.
I am Irish, and so this legacy comes to me.
A stereotype often emerges out of a given group because it fits some of the members of that group, of that there can be no doubt; however, just because a stereotype exists, does that mean we all fit into it?
Think about every colonized race of people in history and the stereotypes which were perpetuated about them. Think about the stereotypes associated with the people from whom you descend.
'Alcoholic', 'Lazy bum', 'Cheapskate', 'Shylock', 'Welfare Queen'?
Does the stereotype fit someone in your family tree? Perhaps it does, but does that mean that's all there is to the whole person, or to the whole ethic group? NO. Human beings are not two dimensional figures, neither all saint nor all sinner. No matter how simple a life we may lead, we are complex individuals. Each of us has both good qualities and bad, no matter what our country of origin.
My interest lies in uncovering all dimensions of the individuals in my family tree, within the stories of their lives. If alcoholism is part of the story, then certainly I acknowledge it; however, falling prey to the temptation to slot all individuals into stereotypes is just not that interesting to me.