With the arrival of St. Paddy’s Day we are transported once again on the wings of nostalgia to the green fields of that land over the sea where leprechauns and four- leaf clovers wink at us and the brave lads go off to fight the Black and Tans.
As one whose forebears include O’Donahues and Mooneys, I sometimes wonder what drove my ancestors to flee the Old Sod in favor of the lakes and forests of Quebec so many years ago. Questions like that pose themselves from time to time, but, probably because my Irish ties are so attenuated, I never seem to care enough to trace my ancestry back very far. Suffice it to say that my French Canadian grandfather married a Scottish-Irish girl and produced my father, who married a Polish lass and begat me, among others.
However, I am fascinated by the happy claim of so many Americans to be Irish to the bottom of our socks, notwithstanding the fact that most of us are the product of quintessential American Melting Pot breeding. I am thinking now of a shirttail relative who I’ll call Kevin.
Kevin, who is in his 70s now, speaks with an Irish brogue as thick as Barry Fitzgerald’s in Going My Way. (If you claim to be Irish and don’t know Barry Fitzgerald, shame on you). The odd thing is that Kevin’s brogue is a relatively recent development. For most of his life it only surfaced as a conscious imitation of the famous actor. Now it’s full time. Even stranger is that Kevin’s mother was Polish, as was mine. For my part, I understand folks claiming Irish ancestry on St. Patrick’s Day, but all the time, every day? That’s like being more Catholic than the Pope. (Come to think of it, Kevin is that, too).
My friend Tom O’Brien, another Irishman with Canadian roots, is anything but a professional Irishman.
“The Irish are a bunch of whiners, if you ask me,” he said on one occasion.
I hadn’t asked him, and the truth is that I had never thought of the Irish as complainers. However, that does need one small qualification. I recently read that the NINA (No Irish Need Apply) story is a myth: that the Brahmins of Boston did not actually post newspaper ads for maids with that stipulation.
The NINA tale is so rooted in our collective imagination that I for one have repeated it many a time as evidence that all immigrants have had to overcome prejudices before working their way into the American mainstream. Well, no matter, it might just as well have been true. The Irish did have to overcome a lot in those early days, being portrayed in the popular mind as drunks, wife beaters, and, worst of all, Catholic.
When Al Smith ran for President, it was said that if he were elected, the Pope would move right into the White House the next day. Smith lost the election in no small measure because of his faith, but at least he retained his Irish sense of humor.
“Send a telegram to the Pope telling him to unpack,” he allegedly said the next morning.
It is interesting that Smith, a spokesman for the Irish, was actually of Irish, German and Italian descent. Oh, well.
Years ago, almost lost in the mists of time, I attended a high school (a sort of reform school when I think about it now) where there was a strong Irish contingent as well as a German clique. On St. Patrick’s Day the Germans wrote on the blackboard: “Erin Go Brag.”
I was not Irish enough to know that it should have said “Erin Go Bragh.” In fact, I am not Irish enough now to know what it meant before I looked it up on my computer.
Ireland forever? You bet.