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The Boston Globe

Opinion

JAMES CARROLL

How family lore shapes character

Family lore makes us who we are. In my case, the story of my mother’s Uncle Jim was defining. She grew up an immigrant’s daughter in the Irish-American enclave on Chicago’s South Side. You could walk down the street, she told me, and hear Irish rebel songs being sung in taverns. It was the music of the Rising — that Easter Monday in 1916 when Irish rebels took over the Dublin post office, prompting the British to shell the center city, sparking the war that won Irish independence.

My mother heard its music personally because she was told that her father’s left-behind kid brother, Jim Morrissey, was one of the Rising’s martyred heroes. By my time, Uncle Jim was enshrined in family memory. My mother bounced me on her knee to the Irving Berlin tune about an out-of-line soldier, “They Were All Out of Step but Jim.” Because I shared his name, his maverick aura extended to me as I grew up. My inbred subservience competed with an impulse to transgress, as Jim did. I was primed for the revolutions of the 1960s.

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