Monday, March 14, 2011

Confessions of a Brogue Chaser

I watched an advance of Colin Quinn's HBO special over the weekend (it airs in April), which got me thinking about my Irishness. Although the show is not explicitly about the Irish, it has a distinctly Irish-American sarcasm, which is probably why I find Quinn so funny. (I'm still laughing over a bit where he seeths with impatience because someone steps onto an elevator after he's pushed the button. "I've got important business on 12; you've got some bullshit on 8," he says, and I lose it.)

I was raised to take pride in being Irish. My mother's maternal grandmother was born in Ireland; my dad's family came over to build the Erie Canal. So it's not like we're just off the boat, as they say. Yet my parents were almost pathological about their Irishness. All of their friends were Irish-American; we vacationed together at Mullen's, a resort that called itself "A Little Piece of Ireland in the Catskills" and featured Irish music in the cocktail lounge at night. (And yes, we kids were in the bar until all hours. Bedtime? Second-hand smoke? Pish posh.) Anyone with an Irish brogue was practically worshiped.

One showed one's Irishness in many ways, such as by never thinking of oneself as a "big shot" or making it seem like one was "hot stuff." Nor was one to associate with, or harbor, big shots. "Fat Cats" were also frowned upon, and usually to blame for each of the world's problems. Any display of high self-esteem was strictly prohibited. We're Irish, damn it!

We also made an annual pilgrimage to the St. Patrick's Day parade in Manhattan. My mother and aunt took all of us kids out of school, I put on a scratchy wool hat covered in green sequins, and we went down to the city. The weather was likely bitter and rainy. My mother bought us green carnations and hot pretzels and we watched the marchers and became one with the bagpipes until we were numb with cold. Sometimes we'd take a bathroom break at Gimbel's on 86th Street.

Mom invariably saw people she knew marching with the police or the Emerald Society of the Fire Department She would say, there's what's his name, and wave. After the parade we would go home and eat corned beef and cabbage and Irish soda bread.

I became a lover of all things Irish. I wrote high school and college papers about Yeats and Celtic mythology, listened to Irish bands, and traveled around Ireland with an Irish-American friend for 17 days in 1994. Even as an adult, I would always take the day off from work to meet my parents and their friends to watch the parade. I would passionately dispute people's stereotypes of the Irish as a bunch of green beer-drinking lowlifes. Particularly to one friend who imagined that my family would be "beating each other with shillelaghs."

So last year, I was pretty thrilled when I had the opportunity to march in the parade with the friends and family of the Grand Marshall, NYC police commissioner Ray Kelly. For something like 8 years, I have enjoyed an annual Christmas lunch with the P.C. and other members of The Kelly Gang, a group of important media people--big shots, really--who share the same last name and accidently let a person like me slide into their group. Some years, I have also helped plan a St. Patrick's Day fundraiser that we have put on 7 times.

Nonetheless, it felt like a bit of a stretch to call myself one of the esteemed Ray Kelly's "friends and family." But it was so awesome to march down Fifth Avenue on the Kelly green line in my Kelly green coat and wave at all the spectators. The only bummer was that none of my loved ones understood the significance. My kids were at school; my husband was at work. I scanned the crowd for people I knew, but they were all dead or in Florida. My mother got to the city too late to see me marching. Maybe it appeared as if I considered myself some sort of big shot. "If your kids were in it," she told me later. "Then I would have gotten myself here in time." That's when I realized that it's over, because my kids have never even been to the parade.

The passing on of the Irish culture that has happened for generations in my family really stops with me. My husband probably has as much Irish blood as I do (his great-grandmother was named Maud Heaney), but he was not raised as an Irish-American. (His mother's family has an attachment to Texas, similar to but not as intense as my parent's Ireland thing.) I stopped eating beef 25 years ago, so I don't serve the signature dish to my kids. The little darlings wouldn't eat it anyway; they won't even choke down a piece of soda bread. Violet does have an "Everyone Loves an Irish Kid" t-shirt and my special green hat. Other than that, the best culture passing I can do is to serve vaguely shamrock-shaped Entenmann's cookies and let them watch some of the parade on tv.

It's kind of sad, really.


  1. you can do better than that! We eat green pancakes and we aren't even irish. It's just, you know...part of America's heritage so we eat green pancakes, green jello and wear green because why? Cause obviously we wish we were irish :)

  2. Sarah-- green pancakes don't sound very appetizing, or very Irish. But thanks for commenting!

  3. don't worry about the vile green food... just make sure they read Joyce and Yeats!

  4. I thought of your post this morning as I tried to convince my 3 year old to wear something green to preschool today. "Green is NOT one of my favorite colors." The Irish soda bread I made, much sweeter and cakier than my great-grandmother's recipe, was tasted and inexplicably rejected. I feel sad too. And I effing love your sequin hat picture!

  5. Bless your heart, lassie, for not bringing up the dying of the rivers in towns like Providence, Chicago, etc. And you resisted discussion of Bono, Frank McCourt, and Notre Dame. Slainte!