It wasnt 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 didnt think about it one way or the other.
In America, where St. Patricks 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 dont.
So in Seattle, where Jim emigrated to work for Boeing, the tradition was firmly established, and when St. Patricks Day rolled around
It was an excuse to have a party. Another excuse to have Guinness.
Wed host (a party) at our house and wed have a lot of British (friends). And they became honorary Irish folks for the day.
Theyd have Irish whiskey and Irish coffee along with the Guinness and black-and-tans; wear green (even if its their underpants) and have a big sing-along ( after a few drinks).
Theres probably more people who claim Irish heritage than any other nationality, I think, in the United States. If theres a smidgen of Irish in their background, theyll be proud of that for whatever reason.
I think thats kind of neat.
Jims 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: Jims the Irishman. Im 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.)
Its probably from one of the clans in Scotland, of which there are many.
The farm was founded by Jims 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 wasnt 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. Thats 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 theyre 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.
Jims 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. Jims 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 Ill go have an interview. Theres not much going on here, and the rest of the guys are going down. And its 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 youre young, sometimes youre 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 wasnt 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 Ive 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 doesnt 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 Meridians Touchmark to be close to their two daughters.
They thought their St. Patricks Day parties were over.
People recognize that I have an accent. That probably opens up some discussions more than anything else. I dont go around trying to claim my Irish heritage is a really big deal. Its not.
But theres something about the allure of the Irish, and organizers at their retirement village are corralling Jim and Barb to help with community festivities. Its 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 theres a lot of people interested in Irish history, and it wouldnt 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. Theres 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).
Im kind of proud of some of the things the Irish have done over the years.
Though Jim and Barb arent hosting one of their big parties this year, the big parties are clearly an important part of Jims personal history. Maybe the parties are the important thing, and not so much St. Patricks Day.
Its not as big as Christmas; its a one-day thing and then its over.
Except that hes not just Irish-for-a-day. He will always be Irish. He smiles.
That wont 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.