Back to the roots: Chantilly faculty and students celebrate Irish heritage and ancestry


An ancestor of Hallie O’Rourke, her paternal great-grandmother, Mary McCurtain

Hallie O'Rourke, Assistant Academics Editor

“Everyone is Irish, even just for a day!”

This is a commonly heard saying on St. Patrick’s Day, an Irish holiday that celebrates the patron saint of Ireland. However, according to the Washington Post and the U.S. Census, only 11.1% of people living in the United States claim Irish heritage. St. Patrick’s Day provides an outlet to celebrate this rich culture with decades-old tradition and folklore.

“[In my family], we color the milk green [and] the leprechauns come. My littlest children just absolutely flip out,” history teacher John Downes said. “Sometimes they won’t even drink the milk. The leprechauns get to the toilet water and any open available glasses of water in their nightstands and it’s just a tinge of green. We play traditional and modern Irish music and celebrate as a family.”

Other common festivities on St. Patrick’s Day include baking Irish foods to celebrate the culture of Ireland.

“A tradition that my mother got from her mother is making Irish soda bread on St. Patrick’s Day. That’s something that we do every year,” senior Jack Skopowski said.

Irish heritage is important to many, as is any heritage, since it provides an individual with a sense of self.

“I really think that you need to know where you’ve come from and the hardships that the people before you have had to endure so you appreciate the life that you have more,”  Downes said.


Irish people are known, throughout history, for overcoming major hardships, especially after immigrating to the United States. This is among the many things to remember when celebrating and learning about their culture.

“I think [culture is] important because it shapes how I view myself,” Skopowski said. “Knowing that I come from really humble origins and knowing that my ancestors had to work really hard to get where they were, even though they had everything going against them, gives me more appreciation for what I have today, [knowing] the sacrifices they made both in Ireland and in coming here.”

The story of Irish history in the United States can also inspire many to push forward and accomplish things that their ancestors could not.

“Having taught world history, I know a little more depth about the Irish people, about what they’ve had to endure as people,” Downes said. “They were treated very horribly, and they rose through that and found great opportunities here in this country.”

People with Irish heritage have a sense of camaraderie among themselves, no matter which region of Ireland they are from.

“[I get my Irish roots from] both [sides of my family]. That’s a certain argument within my family but I would say that we are 99% Irish, maybe even 100% Irish,” Downes said. “[My family is from] County Cork. I know that a great number of my family was killed by the Spanish flu epidemic, which is why I’m such a germaphobe.”

Looking back on those that came before can help us identify traits that have been passed down throughout generations.

“I definitely have Irish blarney,” Downes said. “I would say I have a very jovial personality. I feel very deeply about my background, about the accomplishments of Irish people, about their religious beliefs. I am ardently Catholic. I also enjoy all the aspects of Irish culture, storytelling, music, singing and work ethic.”


Irish heritage is very important to me as well. I am about 50% Irish. My father is Irish and my paternal grandmother’s family came into the United States in the 1850’s. Edward McMullen, my great-great-great grandfather, was from County Down, Ireland, and his wife, Cecilia Lanaghan, was from County Cork. When they came to the United States, they lived in Clinton, Iowa. Additionally, my great-great grandmother, Ellen Ann Waters, came from County Cork to the United States on her first birthday in 1880. She landed with her family in Castle Garden, the pre-Ellis Island destination for immigrants. From what my family has told me, my lineage has gone through great difficulties and tragedies, involving deaths within the family. My great aunt recovered many letters regarding one of my ancestors, Virginia Ann McMullen, who lived with her aunt after her mother died when she was an infant and her father could no longer take care of her. She later passed away at age 25 due to illness. This helps me to appreciate the safe and healthy life that I am able to live today.

Although I am only half Irish, I still have grown to know and love the culture I was born with. Looking at old family documents and photos, it’s easy to see resemblances from my ancestors and myself. From the small things, like a letter from my ancestor Virginia McMullen to her mother and brother which opens with “Thank you so much for the letter I didn’t get,” a sarcastic attitude is still present in my family today. There are also many other aspects of typical Irish culture that I see reflected in myself and my family, as others do in theirs.


“Irish heritage is just embedded within my culture. It ties family, religion, and that sense of self worth and work ethic.” Downes said.