It's Not 1850s Ireland Anymore
Creating the epigenetics of love.
There is a legacy that runs deep in my blood, through the marrow of my bones, embedded in my DNA, tracing back long before I incarnated into this flesh. The soaring cliffs and rolling green, crashing surf where gray meets gray, bucolic countryside and ewe-spotted hilltops; the lilting, lyrical language and warm eyes crinkled in greeting, but also the tragedy, striving, and starving that can never be satiated, all of it beats within my chest, I breathe it when I speak, and I am bound to it in indentured servitude and traumatic re-enactment.
I had a one-way ticket for Ireland on April 13, 2020, so the pilgrimage never took place—but it turns out I didn’t need to go, because I’d never really left. My patrilineage has been epigenetically expressing itself through my thoughts and feelings and words and deeds my whole life, manifesting most prominently in an all-consuming scarcity consciousness.
“It’s not 1850s Ireland anymore,” a healer recently told me, jabbing his index finger in my direction through the screen, “but you’re acting like it is.”
With those words, a lifetime suddenly made sense: the incorporeal longing, suffering, and striving; the unplaceable and omnipresent dread, feeling hopelessly fated to tragic ends and star-crossed everything. I dipped my toes in the waters of other futures only to scamper back squealing, until one day, I really leapt, and it turned out exactly like I was afraid it was going to. Then, there I was, like so many times before: heartbroken, penniless, nearly homeless, relying on the kindness of near-strangers, always starting all over again, all over again.
For years, my professional life was a shifting panoply of bike shops, coffee shops, cafés, and nameless, faceless office jobs, scalding milk on customer request and shuffling papers til my skin cracked, rearranging the tire room for the umpteenth time, counting the seconds until the boys and I could punch out and crack beers in the back room. My personal life was sucking smoke and breathing ethanol, nights that obliterated the unbearable being of the day, taking the edge off the morning as fragments of choices that further affirmed the toxic narrative floated to the top of my consciousness: Who had I sacrificed myself to this time? What property damage had I caused in my frantic attempt to escape from my own existence? What words could not be taken back, what desperate cries for attention needed to be expunged from social walls?
I have healed enough to create a career that I love and a personal life that is aligned with most of my values, but with this reframing has come different kinds of traps. Complex and interesting life lies at the border between structure and chaos, yet I’ve fluctuated from the overly chaotic to the overly ordered—and at the heart of it all is a pervasive scarcity consciousness.
No wonder, for this is what Western culture is built upon. The prosperity gospel preaches that through consumption, all may be redeemed; that none may want who are willing to work. But what they don’t tell you is that the work never ends, it just gets harder to distinguish from the rest of your life; that everyone can’t have it all, the math doesn’t add up.
My ancestors learned that life was fighting for scraps; that every time might be the last time for a long time. They learned that everyone they loved, they’d lose; that they had to go along to get along; that if it doesn’t hurt, it isn’t work; that relief only comes through obliteration. And the O’Regans had it easy compared to the ancestors of so many others.
Just like everything else in America, the capitalist culture that created this scarcity mindset was exported from Europe, and the system we know today arose partially from real estate: the profession from which my father architected both his fortune and his downfall, echoing the fates of his ancestors across that continent. In the 12th century, the creation of enclosures that began in England made private property from what once was the commons, giving rise to stratified classes of landlords and tenants, owners and workers. The enclosures became large estates that increasingly concentrated land, wealth, and power in the hands of a small percentage.
In the 1500s, the English colonized Ireland, bringing the enclosure system and the Anglican Church along with them. In the process, they all but destroyed Gaelic civilization and Celtic spirituality, marked by millennia of connection to the natural world and Divine Feminine, co-occurring and intermingling with an imported Catholicism. From these early days, the pattern of repression of a poor, predominantly Catholic majority by a wealthy Protestant majority was set. By 1800s, 1.5% of the population owned 33% of the land, and 50% was controlled by just 750 families.
Initially, landholding was restricted to Protestants; later repeals didn’t change the functional reality that most Catholics were too poor to purchase land. Up to half of owners were absentee landlords who rented their acreage out to tenant farmers. But this was “at-will” tenancy, backed by no guarantees, and the farmers lived in constant fear of being evicted (a common practice). Subletting proliferated, many estates were poorly managed, and tenants were disincentivized from improving their property, lest the rent be raised.
The farmers primarily grew potatoes, the most efficient and fertile crop, and this came to comprise an increasing amount of their increasingly poor diet. By the 1840s, the majority of tenant farmers lived in poverty and terrible conditions; nearly half of homes were mud cabins with no windows or chimneys. In one of capitalism’s many great ironies, most farmers didn’t make enough to buy food, and had to supplement their income with labor work. As the struggle for independence from England raged and the British restricted trade, the economy deteriorated, demand for labor decreased—and then came “the blight.”
A fungus-like organism ripped through the variety of potato most commonly produced, causing crop failures to ripple across the country. What foodstuffs survived were disproportionately exported to England, and the hunger epidemic raged; tenants defaulted on their rent and were evicted en masse. The poor flooded the cities in search of work, where the problems of civilization, from water quality to infectious disease, impacted just as many as hunger. People emigrated by the scores, but many found the same biases and conditions of indentured servitude in America and elsewhere that they thought they were leaving behind. Families and clans were decimated and dispersed with traumatic effects that still ripple today.
By 1850, the legacy of tragedy and scarcity consciousness was firmly entrenched. The population of Ireland dropped by nearly half as millions died or fled, dropping from nearly 8.2 million in 1841 to 5.4 million in 1871. Among those who remained, kin were pitted against kin in the name of religion, which was now so interwoven with identity as to become indistinguishable—as humans so often do, creating separation in the name of unity, imposing systems of control upon life’s natural complexity. People were disconnected from the land, their history and culture, and from each other, clinging to whatever constructs remained that might tell them who they were, where they were going, and what the point was of all this suffering.
By the time my father was a child, in 1960s small-town America, centuries of Catholic shame had been heaped on top of the Protestant work ethic, and so many toxic narratives were embedded in his subconscious: If you haven’t been saved, it’s because you’re a sinner; if you aren’t a millionaire, it’s because you’re not a winner. And as much as you try to dress the part, you can never outrun your past; there will always be dirt under your fingernails from scrabbling for starch in the barren soil.
He also bore the burden of the designated survivor. It was his job, even as a young child, to drag his father out of the bar and ensure he made it home to work another day at the paper mill. It was his job to be the first of his line to receive higher education. It was his job to get rich and take care of the others. And that meant denying his feminine nature and creative impulse. He didn’t even know he had artistic capabilities until I came along and wanted to draw, and when he discovered what he could do, lifetimes of regret were released.
His father had wanted to be an artist. He was incredibly talented, soft pencil sketches of tiny birds fluttering from the page in delicate colored pencil, so much heartbreakingly feminine natural imagery. But art didn’t feed his family, so he drew on the side—until an accident at the mill crippled his dominant hand. I don’t know which came first, the drinking or the drawing, but the former took hold when the latter took leave, and life got increasingly messy.
My father renounced his legacy, but he lived in opposition instead of affirmation; the life he constructed looked very different on the surface, but of course, it was exactly the same. Haunted by the ghosts of the not-yet-departed and driven by the engine of scarcity, it played out just like he feared it would. And the legacy he handed down was a mutant: I had to both follow my creative impulse and provide for myself and my family, and look good while doing it. I had to be a self-made man, yet start at the top. I could never make a mistake, and every time I didn’t succeed, it was because something was wrong with me. I learned to live in fear and self-doubt, anger and shame, limitation and lack, instead of joy and trust, abundance and enough-ness.
But the beauty of realizing your epigenetic legacy is that you get the chance to change it. All those limiting beliefs and myths and stories, that’s all they are, as ethereal as the capitalist model and the various Churches and states. It’s brutal work to unearth the roots of so much suffering, but I’m doing it for all of us. Just like the pain can morphically resonate, so can the healing. My work is to create the epigenetics of love, and if it takes a lifetime, or two, or three, I’ll get there.
It’s not 1850s Ireland anymore.
So what’s next?