by Annette Gallagher Weisman

Becoming American: Personal Essays by First Generation American Women,
Edited by Meri-Nana-Ama Danquah (Hyperion)
Shorter version below published in Cincinnati magazine – July 2004

Hardly anything else that happened to me was as
Important as this: that I left one country and came to another.
That an ordinary displacement made an extraordinary distance
Between the word place and the word mine.
Eavan Boland, Object Lessons

I’ve seen them on the news, desperate people taking desperate measures to reach our shores, the United States of America. I’ve felt both sympathy and shame as I’ve watched parched, exhausted bodies being airlifted from makeshift boats in shark-infested waters.

I have also watched dispirited families who’ve barely had a glimpse of the land of affluence before being herded back across the Rio Grande by the U.S. Border Patrol.

In 1977, I married an American—a slam dunk for citizenship. I remained by choice a legal resident, a status that permitted me every legal right except the right to vote.

My shame in watching these people struggle for survival was because I had what they wanted: a green card. Yet it took almost 20 years before I would officially give up one country for another.

It seemed to me that I should feel passionate about becoming an American, but I could not. The problem was my love for Ireland. My Irishness had been taken away from me once; I did not want it to happen again.

Swearing allegiance to this country instead of the place that I still, in my heart, called home was like changing religions or cutting off a limb. Part of me resisted such a drastic move. I wasn’t fleeing from some despot or pursuing a dream, nor was I trying to support a family. I wanted to live here without having to abandon my country of origin and become someone else: an American.

Yet in a sense, I had grown up with Americans. The first television show I saw as a child, in Dublin, was The Lone Ranger. Unlike the BBC, Britain’s British Broadcasting Company, Radio Telefis Eireann had, in the 1960s, filled much of its airtime with American TV shows. I watched everything from Bonanza to Hawaii Five-O and even named our dog, Paladin, after the hero of a Western series.

My view of how the average American lived was largely based on Father Knows Best, that perfect family with perfect teeth and not one hair out of place. Even small details of their lives intrigued me. For instance, instead of mail, which we called post, being dropped through a small opening in our front door, Americans had a big box on a stand at the end of their driveway. Everything about America seemed bigger, and maybe better, but I had no desire to live there.

Years later, a few months after my marriage to my husband Bob, we moved from New York City to Evergreen, Colorado. And it was then, only then, as a young wife sitting on a crate waiting for the moving van to arrive, that I noticed the mailbox at the end of our driveway, and I realized I was now part of the American dream—the one I’d watched on television. Still, I never felt at home. I never felt American.

My Irish sensibilities are hard to define; it’s more a feeling that’s ingrained to my very core. Though I don’t sound or look particularly Irish, I connect instantly with someone who has an Irish background. I recognize that mischievous, yet kindly, glint in the eye, a wry sense of humor when times are tough, and a look of melancholy that conveys the weight of Irish history. But other than making plum puddings at Christmas time and a few other holiday rituals, I don’t have many customs to remind me of my roots. To be honest, I’ve eaten more corned beef and cabbage over here than I ever did in Ireland.

When I first came to this country, I was reluctant to join any Irish groups or organizations that would set me apart. With my blonde hair, blue eyes and no language barrier, it was easy for me to assimilate. I could be from many places. The same reasons that made it easy, however, also caused an identity crisis. My Dublin accent isn’t the brogue Americans are used to, so they often think I’m English. When I tell them I’m not, I’m Irish, they apologize, thinking they’ve offended me, when I’m simply stating who I am. Once, on Fifth Avenue, I heard a woman with a Dublin accent pass me by and I almost ran after her to say—what?  I don’t know. But I was so used to thinking I should sound like an Irish Spring commercial it was a relief to come across someone like me: a middle-class Dubliner.

Yet I have been technically British for most of my life. Other than my new American passport, the only one I’ve ever owned was British. According to a 1948 Act of Parliament, I was entitled to a British passport because my paternal grandmother was English. I got one partly for the sake of expediency, and partly because a British Member of Parliament, Enoch Powell, was making racist comments at the time about repealing the Act to keep various Commonwealth subjects, including the Irish, out of Britain.

Aside from becoming confusingly British, I also adopted a new name, or rather re-acquired my given one; like obtaining a British passport it made the most sense at the time. I was christened Annette Frances Gallagher, but when I was too young to remember, my mother began calling me June. Annette had been my father’s choice, and I don’t think my mother really cared for it, and was told later she named me June after some American movie star. I was also born in June. In any event, I grew up in Dublin as June Gallagher. Other than an occasional reason to fill out some official form, I forgot about my real name growing up.

When I worked for Vanity Fair magazine in London, there was already a June and a Judy on staff.  Upon discovering that my given name was Annette, the editor, Audrey Slaughter, asked if I would mind being called that. I didn’t see a problem at the time and said no, naively thinking it was like having a “pet” name. Later, as I interviewed people and covered various events for the magazine, I found it impossible to revert to June.

This change of name had repercussions regarding my identity that I didn’t realize till much later on. I had in effect become two people. I asked friends and relatives in Ireland to call me Annette, but that didn’t work; they couldn’t, or wouldn’t, remember. Yet by now more people knew me by my given name. I discovered in trying to eradicate June completely, I would in a sense be wiping out my past life in Ireland, which I didn’t want either, so I gave up. I had to reconcile myself to having two names and two countries.

My emotions regarding who I was were complicated a bit further by my marriage. At first I retained my maiden name. But while it’s logical to pronounce the second g in Gallagher, it is silent in Ireland, so when mispronounced sounds like a different name to me. Also the combined Gallagher Weisman is a bit of a mouthful.  I did, however, substitute G for my middle initial F in a somewhat pathetic attempt to retain my Irishness and identify, at least to myself, who I am.

Language is another area of confusion. Sometimes my husband doesn’t understand something I say like, “I have to get my skates on” (to hurry up), and asks me to speak “in English” which annoys me. One would think it would be more difficult if English were my second language.  But there are subtler differences in language between English speaking countries than spelling alone. I am always translating in my head from Irish English to English English and then to American English.

When I was going to school, the Irish language was a compulsory subject. I resented it at the time because I also took Latin and felt one dead language was enough. While I can’t speak Irish conversationally, I can still pronounce it well and understand some of it.  In fact, the sound of Irish is always in my head and on my tongue. It’s in everything I say and write. Just like my accent, it’s inherent and not something I can eradicate completely, even if I wanted to. There are times though, when I wish I were the Hollywood version of my nationality, with red hair, freckles and a strong brogue, so I wouldn’t keep confusing people and ultimately myself about my country of origin.

Sometimes we have no control over events that shape our lives, nor do we realize the implication of decisions we’ve made. That’s what happened to me: I already knew what it was like to have two names, two languages, and ostensibly belong to two countries. I wanted separation emotionally from the second country I’d lived in, England, which I’d never considered mine, before I could contemplate a third. And something deeper than that: it isn’t that I’m anti-English—some flag-waving extremist whose pride in one’s heritage has caused this emotional angst of separation from homeland. I’m not much interested in parades, have never drunk green beer and abhor terrorist’s acts. There’s just something in me that’s says I’m Irish, how could I be anything else?

When my family had first left Ireland, I had no choice in the matter. One day I was a happy high school girl, the next day we were moving to England and I had to get a job. I was a necessary financial component in helping to support my family, so that any of my aerie-fairy ideas at the time, such as college, art school, or finishing schools abroad were not feasible at the time. I think that’s the main reason it took me so long to become American: freedom of choice. Now that I was free to choose one country over another, I would do so when I was ready.

It happened like this: When my father died unexpectedly, I couldn’t find my passport. I had been thinking of becoming an American increasingly over the years, but the quickest thing to do in time for his funeral was to get another British one. Unfortunately, my green card was in the one I’d mislaid. Nothing, however, would stop me from attending my father’s funeral. So I left Cincinnati without reapplying for the card that would secure my re-entry into the United States.

On my return to the US, I was ushered into a room with the proverbial light bulb over my head and interrogated by two young immigration officials. I had three options: pay a fine and be deported, renew my legal residency status and pay a fine, or become an American citizen. There was only one logical choice, and I realized then that it was also the one I truly wanted. The officer asked how long I’d been married and seemed more amused than surprised about my reluctance to become an American citizen, saying, “British people always take the longest. My mother-in-law took as long as you did.”  I was about to correct him and say that I wasn’t British, I was Irish, which would have been ridiculous considering he had my passport in his hand, but realized it didn’t matter now that I was becoming an American.

I had to commit to citizenship before I could go home, so after signing some papers, I was given a date to go to the Immigration and Naturalization service. I went home feeling both grateful and elated.

Among the forms I had to fill out was a sample of the exam I’d have to take. On my way to the interview, my 10-year-old son, Patrick, Quizzed me in the car; I was afraid I would forget the names of American Presidents and various aspects of the constitution.  The exam was easy. I only wavered when it came to my signature. I paused for a moment, and then wrote Annette Gallagher Weisman.

I became an American citizen in Cincinnati, on December 13, 1996, along with people from 37 other countries. I remember the presiding judge was a woman; there were witnesses from the American Legion, and two boy scouts read a poem. At the end, a woman lawyer from the Philippines gave an eloquent speech about how she still retained her heritage, though she was proud to be an American. Ironic; but I was now at peace with that inner struggle.

When you truly love, you allow for idiosyncrasies and weaknesses, rather than being totally blind to them.  That’s how I feel about Ireland. I will always love it despite its insular ways. Unlike a person, however, Ireland didn’t leave me. I left it. If you’ve ever relinquished someone or something that meant a great deal to you, then maybe you can understand my feelings of abandoning Ireland. Part of you remains with that place or person you loved, and in return they’ve added a new dimension to your life. You’re no longer you’re original self, but a hybrid made up of as many people or places who’ve mattered to you. As writer Luc Sante once said, “I have become permanently ‘other.’

The choice I am faced with is simple: either I am at home everywhere, or I am nowhere at all.”

I felt that way for almost 20 years—if I couldn’t be Irish, I would be “other.” But as in marriage, I’ve found that I do want to forsake all others. I want to be loyal to the country I’m in, which I still have difficulty calling mine. I owe it that. I am now consciously trying to look at things from an American, rather than a European, perspective, without either losing or clinging to my Irish heritage.

I attended a ball game a few months after becoming a citizen and sat with my family enjoying the whole American scene: the guy going up and down the aisles yelling, “Hey beer. Beer here”; the instant camaraderie of complete strangers as they passed someone’s money along to the vendor; the peanut shells on the ground; my daughter, Samantha, cheering, wearing blue jeans and a baseball cap; Patrick’s intense look of concentration; my husband’s unsolicited coaching advice to the players far below; and “the wave” of fans to encourage some action on the field.

I remember that day clearly. That was the day, for the first time, I put my hand over my heart and sang the words to the National Anthem, instead of looking at the ground as I used to do.  At last, I was united with my family. I had finally swum ashore to join them.