Friday, January 20, 2023

Another son of the auld sod

After 15 Grueling House Speaker Votes, America’s Long National Nightmare Can Finally Begin
 —Headline on the satirical news website The Babylon Bee, January 7
It may have taken 15 votes, but Kevin McCarthy finally did become Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. His road to this position was long and not always promising. He first got elected to Congress during the Bush 43 Administration as part of the Republican class of 2006 in which he was one of the so-called Young Guns, along with Paul Ryan and Eric Cantor. Those two are long gone, but McCarthy somehow managed to adapt, survive and hang on through the Tea Party, the Freedom Caucus and the winds of change that elected Barack Obama and Donald Trump.

There is much to ponder about the constitutionally prescribed process that resulted in so many ballots for Speaker becoming necessary. Much of the press coverage focused on the fact that such a number was unprecedented—unless you went back a century. There were suggestions that this was symptomatic of fundamental disarray in the Republican Party, if not in the entire U.S. political system. Perhaps it is, but such wrangling after national legislative elections is not unusual in other countries.

For example, here in Ireland, as I wrote three years ago, the 2020 general election resulted in three different political parties having a theoretical shot at forming a government but only after a complicated negotiation for a coalition. Voters went to the polls on February 8, and though the results were quickly known, it was not until June 27 that Micheál Martin was sworn in as Taoiseach, roughly equivalent to Speaker of the House in the U.S. system. The following year, the Netherlands took nearly 10 months of negotiations to form a government after its parliamentary elections.

In other words, protracted post-election negotiations are often the norm in many countries. Usually in the U.S., though, because there are only two viable national parties, such negotiations tend to happen mostly out of the glare of intense press coverage. After the 2020 U.S. elections, Democrats had a similarly thin margin in the House, but they managed to make all their intra-party deals before the official vote for Speaker. Is that better than how the Republicans did it? Is it preferable to keep political messiness more out of the voters’ view or is there some value in having the in-fighting in public view?

As it happens, I have a couple of strange connections to the new Speaker of the House, and not just deriving from the fact he and I were both born in Bakersfield, California.

I do not know the man and have never met him, but with a name like Kevin McCarthy he obviously has an Irish connection, and I have a way of running into those. Back in 1998—before McCarthy was first to elected to office (to a seat on the Kern County Community College District Board of Trustees in 2000)—he was in charge of Bakersfield’s annual St. Patrick’s Day parade. That was the one for which my bride of three days was drafted to be the queen. She was given no choice in the matter by an Irish-American family friend from my home town, who had a penchant for latching onto any visiting Irish people. He had previously secured the parade queen’s crown for the visiting niece of our town’s Irish priest, who hailed from Donegal.

Once McCarthy’s struggle to be elected Speaker began dominating the worldwide airwaves, it was inevitable that local Irish genealogists would go to work. American presidents’ Irish connections have been a fascination here since John F. Kennedy’s election in 1960, followed by his sentimental and celebrated visit to Ireland a mere five months before his tragic death. No other U.S. president has had as close a connection to Ireland, but a surprising number of them have at least had Irish in their DNA. Subsequent visits here have been made by Richard Nixon (Quaker roots in Kildare), Ronald Reagan (Antrim, Tipperary), both presidents Bush (Down) and Barack Obama, whose maternal ancestors were traced to the village of Moneygall on the Offaly-Tipperary border. Obama’s visit, in particular, caused great excitement here and to this day is commemorated by an elaborate service station complex called Barack Obama Plaza near Moneygall on the Dublin-to-Limerick motorway.

Nixon’s 1970 visit is of particular interest in this house. It included a visit by First Lady Pat Nixon (born Thelma Catherine Ryan) to meet distant cousins in the South Mayo town of Ballinrobe and to see her “home place” very near where my wife is from. The local story is that the land owner, on short notice, had to locate a likely structure (a mucky old shed as it happened) and quickly clean it up and make it presentable for the visit. Mayo is also home to cousins of President Biden, who (not unlike the man who made my wife a queen) delights in his Irish connections, which also includes cousins in County Louth.

So what have the genealogists come up with for Speaker McCarthy? An article in a local newspaper informs us that his great-grandfather was Jeremiah McCarthy from Cork. It turns out that Jeremiah married a fellow Irish immigrant named Mary Heskin. A 24-year-old widow, she was from a family with 15 children in a South Mayo village. In other words, she was from just down the road from us.

Jeremiah and Mary were married in the Kern County town of Tehachapi, 40 miles from Bakersfield. For some reason our local paper spells the town’s name Tihachiopia.