Always an Irishman: Jim McWha is thankful for his life in the U.S., but he never forgot his roots

In America, where St. Patrick’s Day has been celebrated since the late 18th century, the festivities have evolved into a source of nationalistic pride for those who have Irish roots. Even for those who don’t.

kjones@idahostatesman.comMarch 9, 2014 

heart of treasure valley, irish, mcwha, st. patrick's day

Jim McWha, 74, is from Northern Ireland, which makes him technically British. “Everyone from Northern Ireland is British, whether they like it or not,” he says. “(But) I’m from Ireland. Therefore I’m Irish.” And when people note his wee bit of an accent, still lingering, it’s good for sparking a conversation. “Having respect for the heritage, I think, is important. … There’s kind of a romantic thing about (being Irish). People like to think of themselves as Irish.”

KATHERINE JONES — kjones@idahostatesman.com Buy Photo

  • WORKING HARD

    Jim’s family raised cattle and milk cows, chickens, sheep, lambs and pigs. They grew potatoes and turnips. Even as a boy, he felt the weight of farming, fighting the weather, wondering when to cut the hay to minimize the impact of weather. He quips, “It doesn’t rain more than 30 or 35 inches a year, but it takes all year to fall.”

    In a conversation about food, Jim smacks his lips remembering a typical breakfast of black pudding — blood sausage — and biscuits for sopping up the gravy.

    “…And then you go work hard for about eight hours.”

    Decades later, after Jim retired, he volunteered for Habitat for Humanity with skills he attributes to his farm days.

    “I did a lot of work repairing things on the farm. It got me adjusted to working hard. I still keep that.”

    But blood sausage and biscuits? Only every now and again these days.

It wasn’t until he moved to the United States that Jim McWha gave a lot of thought to celebrating his heritage.

He says: “I suppose I felt more Irish than English, but I didn’t think about it one way or the other.”

In America, where St. Patrick’s Day has been celebrated since the late 18th century, the festivities have evolved into a source of nationalistic pride for those who have Irish roots. Even for those who don’t.

So in Seattle, where Jim emigrated to work for Boeing, the tradition was firmly established, and when St. Patrick’s Day rolled around —

“It was an excuse to have a party. Another excuse to have Guinness. …

“We’d host (a party) at our house and we’d have a lot of British (friends). And they became honorary Irish folks for the day.”

They’d have Irish whiskey and Irish coffee along with the Guinness and black-and-tans; wear green (“even if it’s their underpants”) and have a big sing-along (“ … after a few drinks”).

“There’s probably more people who claim Irish heritage than any other nationality, I think, in the United States. If there’s a smidgen of Irish in their background, they’ll be proud of that for whatever reason.

“ … I think that’s kind of neat.”

Jim’s wife of 26 years, Barb, would make a big spread of food: corned beef and cabbage, soda bread, wheaten bread, Irish stew — all with explanations of the traditions — although Barb is not Irish.

She says: “Jim’s the Irishman. I’m just happy to be part of his Irish family.”

Jim was born on his parents’ farm, 20 miles from Belfast in Northern Ireland, where his family had lived since before 1745. There are probably only 500 McWhas in the world, Jim says, and, with his dry humor, explains his name.

“In the Scottish language, ‘Mc’ means ‘son of’; probably dates back to Celtic or Gaelic. And ‘Wha’ means ‘who.’ (He pauses for effect and laughs.)

“It’s probably from one of the clans in Scotland, of which there are many.”

The farm was founded by Jim’s grandparents. When his grandfather died, his father dropped out of school to keep it going. His father was 11 years old.

“(My dad) never left Ireland; in fact, he never traveled more than 100 miles from where he was born. …

“The only vacation he ever took in his life was his honeymoon. To Dublin, which was 100 miles away.”

His mother had seven siblings, none of whom ever lived farther than 25 miles from where they were born.

“So in those days, I could tell people by their accent that they were from a village 12 or 15 miles away from where I lived. In those days, there wasn’t as much moving from where you were born. Today that would be impossible.”

For centuries, Ireland has been a land divided by Irish and British politics. Catholic kids went to Catholic schools; Protestant kids went to public schools. That’s what Jim did, but he has steadfastly refused to see the world in those divisions.

“I think it was a shame. If there is tension between two groups, how are you going to resolve it if you separate kids when they’re 5 years old all the way through school?

“I never thought it was right that we were separated. It probably reflects on how I am politically. I see good on both sides; I see an awful lot of bad on both sides. I hate getting into political arguments because they devolve into fights or intolerance of one versus the other.”

Jim’s parents, knowing from experience that farming was a hard life, encouraged him in school. He got a degree in electrical engineering and then a job at Short Brothers, which was the first manufacturing facility in the world for airplanes. Jim’s career began in an office that looked over the shipyard where the Titanic had been built.

Four years later, Boeing came looking. The British airline industry was on the wane, and the full-throttle U.S. space program created an engineer shortage in aviation.

“I thought, maybe I’ll go have an interview. There’s not much going on here, and the rest of the guys are going down. And it’s Friday afternoon. Might as well go talk to them.”

Six months after he talked to Boeing, Jim sailed across the Atlantic on the Queen Elizabeth and moved to Seattle. He was 26 years old.

“It looked like an adventure; when you’re young, sometimes you’re young and foolish maybe. I also realized the prospects were probably better there (for work).

“And there had been a long history of Irish people going to the U.S. — like after the potato famine, so it wasn’t all that uncommon. …”

Boeing was an international workplace. The group that Jim joined had 20 engineers, 15 of whom were international, with no more than two from the same country.

“Each one brought their own sets of skills and personalities. It made things interesting — interesting for the good.”

Jim got in on the ground floor of the 747 airplane, then the 767 and 757, a later version of the ubiquitous 737 and, finally, the 777, where he was chief engineer for flight systems and in charge of 400 employees.

“I think I’ve been incredibly lucky, given where I started from. I happened to be at the right place at the right time. I got a good education, I lucked into a pretty decent job that was really interesting, at the leading edge.

“I met a lot of great people. I (was) able to, hopefully, provide good leadership to a bunch of other people.”

His groups worked on the flight control system — the parts that make the airplane move up and down and turn. Previously, all those controls were with mechanical cables. Jim worked during the time that the process was converted to digital.

“It was a magical period in aviation history …

“The technology was changing at such a pace …(and) every time we had a new airplane program, we incorporated the latest technology of the day.

“ … We took a different approach and significantly improved safety. Some of that was reflected on me, on the flight control folks (but) one group doesn’t do a job by itself. …

“ ‘Working together’ became the buzzword for how all the groups at Boeing worked together.

“The philosophy went clear down to getting suppliers involved in design so they understood the rationale for the requirements for their specific equipment.”

Beyond cutting-edge technology, Boeing had the radical concept of getting its customers — who normally competed against each other — together to agree on common elements: one airplane design to minimize expensive customizing, meaning significant savings.

It was a glorious time, and when he retired in 1998, he continued consulting — for the Federal Aviation Administration to continue to improve airline safety, for other international airplane manufacturers, for NASA about the feasibility of redesigning the space shuttle cockpit.

“ … It was interesting to be able to do that. It was based on how well we had done at Boeing.”

A couple of years ago, Jim retired for good, and less than a year ago, Jim and Barb moved to Meridian’s Touchmark to be close to their two daughters.

They thought their St. Patrick’s Day parties were over.

“People recognize that I have an accent. That probably opens up some discussions more than anything else. I don’t go around trying to claim my Irish heritage is a really big deal. It’s not.”

But there’s something about the allure of the Irish, and organizers at their retirement village are corralling Jim and Barb to help with community festivities. It’s an expertise that Jim actually had to study up on over the years.

“(Because I grew up in Northern Ireland), we did not get taught an awful lot of Irish history when I was in school. I learned more about English history and European history than I learned about Irish history. …

“(So) when I came (to the United States), I realized there’s a lot of people interested in Irish history, and it wouldn’t hurt if I became a bit more familiar with some of the Irish history.”

With his dry humor, Jim continues:

“I became not too bad with U.S. history, also, especially when I was getting ready for the citizenship (test). I could ream off all the states and state capitals, the number of senators, number of legislators.

“I could probably compete with most folks that I meet here.”

And he read about the contributions of Irish immigrants, woven into the very fabric of U.S. history.

“ … where they helped build the transcontinental railroad, helped build up the Boston police force, the New York police force. And some came to Idaho. … ”

According to Boise County history, Pioneer City was called “New Dublin.”

“It was 50 percent Irish in the 1860s. … There’s no history of gold mining in Ireland; they found a job here. They had a reputation for being good, hard workers.”

Jim notes that about 10 U.S. presidents have Irish roots — six of them from Northern Ireland — and lists his favorite famous Irish people: nine Nobel Prize winners (including poet Seamus Heaney), novelists (Frank McCourt and Maeve Binchy) and top golfers (Rory McIlroy and Graeme McDowell).

“I’m kind of proud of some of the things the Irish have done over the years.”

Though Jim and Barb aren’t hosting one of their big parties this year, the big parties are clearly an important part of Jim’s personal history. Maybe the parties are the important thing, and not so much St. Patrick’s Day.

“It’s not as big as Christmas; it’s a one-day thing and then it’s over.”

Except that he’s not just Irish-for-a-day. He will always be Irish. He smiles.

“That won’t change.”

Know someone living “from the heart”? Idaho Statesman photojournalist Katherine Jones spotlights someone in the Treasure Valley who influences our lives not only by what they do, but how and why they do it. Do you know someone we should know? Call 377-6414 or email kjones@idahostatesman.com.

Idaho Statesman is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service