Friday, March 16, 2001
More Irish than you
On March 17, 1969, the day my aunt came home from the hospital with her first baby, my grandmother packed a 20-pound turkey, five pounds of mashed potatoes, squash, turnips and stuffing into the car and set off. The distance was not far to drive, but my grandmother lived at the top of the hill and my aunt lived at the bottom and so she set off in the car. Although she was not a very experienced driver, my grandmother knew that to get to the bottom of the hill all she had to do was put the car in neutral and cruise down, tapping the brakes now and again. Well, as soon as she began to descend the hill and started tapping the brakes, she found out that the brakes were gone and there was no way to stop. She didn't panic, but she didn't come up with a workable solution either. What finally stopped her was the plate glass window of the coffee shop at the bottom of the hill. The police arrived, of course, and were in a dither about the poor old woman and whether she was hurt or in shock. "I'm sorry, lads," she said, "but I can't be talking to you now. My daughter's home with the new baby and I must be getting to her now." And she picked up the pot from the back seat of the car and set off down the road on foot to deliver the food.
Without really meaning to, my mother eventually convinced my sister and me that our Irish heritage came mostly from her, not my father. His name is Murphy of course, and he still has the red hair and complexion that prompt people to compare his face to the map of Ireland, but yet I learned over time that Irishness, at least for us Irish people who are actually Americans, has very little to do with an ethnic gene pool and quite a lot to do with less scientifically measurable things, like manners, religiosity and a pot of boiling water.
The Murphys were a South Boston family and, although they eventually moved to our parish in Dorchester, their roots betrayed them. In the minds of parochial Dorchester, South Boston boasts about its Irishness, and boasting is not a trait of real Irish people. Of the five children, only three went to Saint Ann's grammar school. They were not allowed to call their mother "Ma," since she hated the sound of that, but had to say "Mom." And, as if that weren't bad enough, they did frivolous things like buying wallpaper or curtains instead of five pairs of leather school shoes. In ways large and small, the Murphys were American, not Irish. My father's brother joined the Navy and cruised under the North Pole in a submarine. My mother's brother learned to play the accordian and sang IRA protest songs in pubs until the wee hours of the morning. My father's sister moved to the suburbs and decorated her kitchen with little cows and ducks. My mother's sister became a nun and protested the war in Vietnam.
All of this comparing is foolish, of course. Except for my mother's parents, who left Ireland in the 1920s, we're all American. We don't speak Gaelic, love soccer, know the difference between Parnell and Disraeli or have seven children. As kids we didn't go to the local pub with our parents and cousins. In school we learned about Indians and slavery and the Declaration of Independence, not coffin ships, famine or the Easter rebellion.
For people who care about such things, it's easy to judge the authenticity of a person's Irishness. Shamrocks and green beer are not real. Knowing how to iron your linen tablecloths and paying off Saint Anthony for a prayer of intention granted, now that's the way. Guest lists are not Irish. Saying, "You're as welcome as the flowers in May," to all and sundry, and really meaning it, is Irish. Feeding the children separately and sending them to bed, that's not Irish. The right way is for all to eat together and clean up together and then someone puts on the music and the grandmother will teach the little ones the steps and everyone will dance together, sisters with sisters, sons with mothers, we're all related anyway. That's the spirit of Saint Patrick's Day and the Irish: pull up a chair and listen to the stories, never mean, always funny. Anyone who knows how to do it can join, and all are welcome.
Oh, and the pot of boiling water? Well, like an onion or a potato, nothing good ever happens in the kitchen without one.
© 2001 The Carlisle Mosquito