“To be Irish is to know that in the end the world will break your heart.”— Daniel Patrick Moynihan
On Monday, St. Patrick’s Day, the local Irish in central Maine, French mostly, who are just looking for a reason to get happy, will don plastic green hats, “Kiss me, I’m Irish” buttons and cook what they think is Irish cuisine.
As my father, born in Ireland, told us, there is no such thing as Irish cuisine.
It doesn’t matter; everything an Irishman tells you is probably an exaggeration. “Always exaggerate,” my brother Jimmy told me. “It makes life more interesting.”
This weekend you’ll be inundated with more blarney about the Irish than you need to ingest. There will be songs and jigs, poetry and Hollywood movies about what Hollywood thinks is Irish. Don’t believe it. I’m the child and grandchild of pure Irish immigrants, and I can tell you that to be born “Black Irish” and grow up in a house with six Irishmen, and four Irishwomen, not to mention the aunts and uncles who kept coming to the kitchen door with THEIR problems, should qualify us to be compensated.
Don’t listen to anyone who tells you they are “part” Irish. Walk away. To be “part” is to be soothed by whatever the rest is. To be pure Irish is to be gifted with madness, with good looks that will get you nowhere, with talents you don’t know what to do with, and with a ghost deep down in your soul that wants you to have a drink to drown your troubles, even when you don’t have any troubles.
So far, as I approach senility, I have conquered that ghost. But I know that ghost haunted my father, two of my brothers, one dear sister and God knows how many uncles and cousins. We learned, as children, that if some beloved uncle or cousin didn’t make Christmas Eve at the house, it was probably because he forgot where it was, or that there were too many saloons between his house and the streetcar.
I grew up with the Irishmen who fought in the Great War and the Great Depression. There are no more men like that. Life for them was an eternal struggle and good riddance to those times. I keep in my heart more golden and shiny memories of them.
I know now what I saw on their faces as they recited their Rosary beads at night: pain. But they seldom showed that to me when they held me on their laps.
They might raise their hands in anger to one another in those dreadful winter kitchen fights, but those same hands that touched my hair when I cried were soft and gentle and loving. Two important things are said about the Irish: “Rain is their natural condition,” and, “With those boys, it’s all dreams and no plans.” True enough to make the sweetest women cry.
I first heard these things where I heard all of the great stories, on St. Patrick’s Day atop the bar in Skeeter O’Neil’s saloon on Michigan and Soper. My mother agreed to let my father take me to watch our parade. In those days, each parish or neighborhood had its own parade.
We made it to Skeeter’s, where Pop took a break to share a beer with cops and firemen, bartenders and priests, all children and grandchildren of the great Irish diaspora.
In later years, after my father passed, my Uncle Pete would take me up north to Schuster’s Saloon and grill on the levee. Here, the big cathedral parade would pass by, and you could watch it from behind the dirty glass windows. Schuster’s was a haven for the North Side Germans, Poles and Hungarians. Along with the Irish here, they all filled the different shifts from Anheuser-Busch brewery, only a few blocks away, so close that on any rainy day you could smell the warm aroma of hops in the foggy air.
As I age, all of that seems like a dream now. There are no more saloons, even on the south sides of America’s great cities. There are bars now, cocktail lounges, jazz clubs and coffee shops. If only the old ones could come back for one day, that special day. They would find that Schuster’s has probably been replaced with a Starbucks, and the smoke stacks of Anheuser-Busch, which was sold off to strangers, have been cleaned up, so that the gentrified streets along the river can smell better.
They would find that the Skeeter’s of the world have vanished, and Catholic churches across the country have closed, or been torn down.
But Padraig’s Day, like New Year’s Eve and the opening day of baseball season, tingles in young blood more green than red, white and blue.
In what’s left of the Irish ghettos in our great cities, St. Patrick’s Day is still an excuse to get softly hammered and relieve the stresses of looking for a job, dealing with that enormous student loan, or just to bury the memories of the long dead we surely loved.
Or maybe it’s simply to share a martini, as I once did in a New York pub, with a pretty French girl from Maine with green eyes and a green paper hat who wandered in from the snowy streets to mend my haunted heart. Slainte.
JP Devine is a Waterville writer.