A number of years ago, when my children were still pretty small, I made Irish Soda Bread for an International Day celebration at school and made a mistake. I mistook the fennel seeds in my cupboard for caraway, and the whole experience changed. “Your recipe is so delicious!” people said. And I’ve never looked back. It’s fennel in my Irish Soda Bread every year now, on March 17th, St. Patrick’s Day.
I have a card with my mother’s handwritten Irish Soda Bread recipe on it. This recipe was was probably her mother’s, and before that her mother’s—my Nanny, a great-grandmother I never knew who sailed over from Ireland around 1913, the year that both Ulster Protestants and Irish Catholics formed paramilitary forces. But I don’t bake that bread. I use the recipe from the King Arthur Flour cookbook that says “American-Style” at the end. It is more moist and more sweet than the original, and seems so crazy indulgent. The “original” Irish soda bread was a product of scarcity, using basic and inexpensive ingredients, and no yeast, to create a bread that was both versatile and cheap. Nanny’s uses baking soda and cider vinegar and no sugar at all. And definitely not fennel.
While I was baking last night, I made another mistake. I poured the milk into the bowl before whipping the butter and sugar and eggs. I stood momentarily paralyzed and then grabbed a slotted spoon and rescued the softened sticks of butter from the goop. And then I took the rest and poured it down the sink, so I could start over. “Shhhhhh!” I said to my 16-year-old daughter keeping me company in the kitchen. “Don’t tell my famine ancestors!” But then I caught myself. “No,” I said. “Let’s tell them. I am going to celebrate abundance this year, in their honor.”
My ancestors immediately began whispering in my ear. A cacophony of disagreement.
“Atta girl!” some of them said, “Celebrate survival and abundance!”
But “Who do you think you are?” some of them said. “You wasteful, disrespectful woman.”
Our life is a strange mix of scarcity and abundance this year. We lost our home to wildfire a few years ago and still do not have everything we had then, but we have what we need. Not necessarily all that we want, but what we need. I sort through want and need in my body almost every day. So I think my ancestors whisper to me every day. I just don’t always know it’s them speaking.
All Irish ancestors are famine ancestors, in one way or another. Only a few of my Irish ancestors arrived at the time of An Gorta Mór / The Great Hunger, from County Cavan. They settled in Tamaqua, Pennsylvania and became part of a Catholic working class mining community. A few (the Robinsons) had arrived in the decades before, from Ulster, part of the last wave of Protestant Scots-Irish settlers in Pennsylvania before the predominantly Catholic influx of migrants escaping famine began. Nanny and my great-grandfather arrived in the early 20th century from County Mayo, during that time of rising Irish nationalism, on the eve of both global and civil wars. None of these migrants and settlers could have evaded the disaster of An Gorta Mór, which eviscerated indigenous Irish culture and impacted both urban and agricultural societies in the U.S. (in the process continuing to displace Indigenous peoples here). In the decades after the famine, three of my Robinson great-great-great uncles (a wheelwright, a blacksmith, and a stonecutter) left Philadelphia to become farmers in Iowa. That means they settled on land that was more recently stolen than the land they grew up on or the land they never knew, back in Ireland. It’s possible (probable?) that they were trying to evade the rapid growth of Philadelphia due to both Irish Catholic and Black migration around the time of the U.S. Civil War (the Black community of Philadelphia grew from 20,000 to over 60,000 in the second half of the 19th century). “I don’t know much about these emigrants,” my grandfather Robert Barnes Burrows Robinson wrote in a family history he scribbled out for me on a legal pad when I was 17. Except “they were bigoted I know,” and they “had a lot of boys who scattered over the country.”
For a long time I only considered my Tamaqua ancestors—Ann Cullom and Michael Farley—to be “famine ancestors.” But now I consider them all ancestors impacted by famine in Ireland and by the violent histories of slavery and settler colonialism in both Ireland and the U.S. It’s a mouthful, I know, but it’s more true. Even St. Patrick’s Day reminds me that Patrick—before he was a religious leader—was an enslaved boy, captured by the High King of Ireland and taken from his home in Roman Britain to the slopes of Sliabh Mis (Slemish Mountain) in County Antrim. The history of Ireland is a deep history of violent entanglement across the cold Irish Sea, spilling out through diaspora into other lands.
My Nanny, who probably passed the Irish Soda bread recipe I don’t actually make down to me, left a rural coastal region of Ireland that had been devastated by famine just over half a century before. That’s the span of my lifetime now. The brevity of that passage of time feels tangible in a way it did not when I was younger. In that span of time, what was left of a vibrant, complex pre-famine Irish culture became more tenuous (even as voices to revivify and reinvent—and militarize—it grew). An authoritarian Catholic Church took advantage of the trauma vacuum left by An Gorta Mór and offered solace through repression. This, also, was passed down to me. Pull the curtains. Don’t talk about it. Who do you think you are?
The Irish Soda Bread I choose to make these days—“Irish Soda Bread, American-Style”—includes all of this. I even learned today that it was not any of my Irish ancestors, but rather Indigenous peoples of this continent, who first used a form of baking soda to leaven bread. So inside this bread I hear all the whispers. All the complexity. Gach brón agus gach amhran. All the sorrow and all the songs.
La fhéile Pádraig sona daoibh, a chairde. Today, bake the Irish Soda Bread that whispers to you. And try to listen.