Monday, October 16, 2006

On Being (Not) Irish

On many Sundays when I was a kid, it was a tradition to go visit our aunts in Port Carbon, PA. Port Carbon was, probably still is, a rough little town just outside of Pottsville, and my aunts all lived together in a small house that faced a large wooded hill. It was just around a sharp curve at the edge of town, so I always had a sense of their house coming out of nowhere, and once there, being pressed up against that hill. In my memory, it’s always raining in Port Carbon. There was a bar on the corner with a Pabst sign in the window.

They were my grandmother’s sisters, some of whom married and were widowed, some who didn’t – I think there were four all together? It’s a bit shameful that I can never exactly recall. It was a classic Coal Region set-up, these aging Irish sisters all living together in this small house. They always had a bowl of hard candies wrapped in brown cellophane at the ready, which tasted like pennies. They had two dogs who were usually found sleeping behind the coal stove in the kitchen. One nice, one nasty. Strange dogs. When you’d come in, they’d bark and wag their tails, but never get up to greet you, not wanting to leave the warmth of the stove.

Those long Sunday afternoons in Port Carbon would go on forever, and I don’t mean that as a compliment. Bess, the leader, was a tough old broad, wore pillbox hats, I can recall her hiking up her dress to her knees to tie some kind of knot in whatever weird kind of stockings she favored. Smoked like a stack. Cat-eyed horn rim glasses. Croaked more than she talked and coughed constantly. The others were far more kind and quiet. It was always an overwhelming experience to go down there, but it gave my grandmother (who lived with us) a chance to get caught up. They’d sit around talking about old times and the weather, while all us kids lost our minds on the living-room floor. Eventually, we’d saunter off to the local playground and hit the swings or that round spinning wheel you’d hop on and get immediately dizzy. The park was wedged between a shit creek and a power plant.

Forget about big-band music. In my head, I heard 30s music when I went down there – Rudy Vallee and early Bing Crosby. Marlene Dietrich singing “Falling in Love Again.” Brother, can you spare a dime. I can still recall the time I cursed Bess – probably for a good reason as she treated kids with disdain, but still a sign of deep disrespect. And she literally made me sit in the kitchen with a bar of soap in my mouth. It tasted better than their hard candies, but I still wept because I had shamed myself. And I remember her weeping, too, when she saw how out of sorts this made me. I always had a love/hate thing going with her. Years later, brother J would inherit her beast of a car, this giant Buick from the 60s, the same dull color as their hard-candy wrapping, that got about eight miles to the gallon, had Jesus on the cross glued to the dashboard and shook like crazy when you got the car over 50 mph. We called it the Batmobile.

If you took away Port Carbon and replaced it with Donegal or Dublin, the only difference would be the accents. The sense of Irish Catholicness those women put forth was mind boggling, although it’s my understanding that their side of the family had been in America for at least a few generations. Still, because of the coal mines in the late 1800s and the coal industry thriving through the 1940s, that region was and still is a stronghold of people with Irish lineage. Cross that with my mother’s Scottish lineage … and begorrah and fiddlesticks. Actually, my surname is German, a lineage no one wants to discuss, as it’s not nearly so romantic as that of the Emerald Isle. German Scotts Irish. When I get drunk, I want to rule the world, so long as it won’t cost too much.

For all that lineage, aside from that close connection to my aunties, I can look back and see I was raised with very little sense of real Irish heritage. Which is not to say I wasn’t raised Irish – I surely was and have been pleasantly surprised to find I have a pretty similar temperament, humor and outlook on life to many actual Irish folks. Much like how a cat just knows to shit in a litterbox and bury it – I can’t really explain it.

A few years back, I wrote a story for Leisure about dealing with the Greeks in Astoria, and one reader in particular took such umbrage that she gathered together a bunch of her like-minded harpie, neurotic friends and laid siege to that story. Her gist being that I didn’t know shit about Greek people like her … which was the whole point of my story … that the Greeks in Astoria pretty much keep to themselves and shut everyone else out … and her display of shit manners wasn’t exactly busting doors open for the community. But one of her harpy friends who stated she was Hispanic said something to the effect of: “At least I have a culture, unlike people like you.”

I didn’t really know how to answer a person that stupid. I gather plenty of 718 folks look at white people who move here (believe me, out of necessity, as everything else in New York is priced beyond insanity) and see them as this vague, threatening cloud of white suburbia encroaching on their little world. Not quite realizing people come from all over the world, from all sorts of different cultures, not some monochromatic white culture these dolts have built up in their heads based on sitcoms and the acceptable anti-white sentiment that’s second nature in the 718s. The truth is the culture of northeast Pennsylvania is fairly unique in its mix of Eastern European and Irish customs, along with a history tied to an industry that once powered the country but fell on harder times eventually. And it goes back a lot deeper than any hispanic neighborhood in New York City. But there’s no point in explaining that to some imbecile who looks at you and sees only a white cloud raining money.

When I think back on how I was raised, “Irish” wasn’t really a conscious part of it. I think working-class and 1970s, more than anything. That part of Pennsylvania was always chronically unemployed – rates always double what the national average was. When you’re raised in that sort of environment, that factor trumps just about everything else. The overall culture of the 1970s was also a strange push/pull between deeply troubled economic and political times, and the desire to forget about these things. As a kid, I was pretty happy – the music I listened to was happy. It was OK to be a happy person. Kids weren’t openly encouraged by the culture to be thugs and manic depressives. Although I can still recall guidance counselors spouting that, “It’s harder than ever to be a kid these days” line of bullshit. I found it pretty easy at the time.

“Irish” didn’t really play into that, save people noticed I looked Irish. My aunties would always say, “Oh, look at Billy, he looks just like all those little boys on that trip we took to Belfast.” By mentioning the word Belfast, they’d put the image in my mind of a little kid who looked like me lobbing a molotov cocktail at a British armored unit. At least that stark image was one I always recalled from a story in the National Geographic about Northern Ireland, the troubles of which were going full gun at the time.

So when I came to New York in the late 1980s, I didn’t really have that sense of Irishness that I would encounter with people in the tristate area. Where you’ll find a swarming Irish culture, mostly people in the suburbs of Jersey these days, a generation or two removed from the Bronx or Woodside, and probably not more than another generation from Ireland itself. A lot of Irish immigrants, too, looking for work, although there's not nearly so many these days. It’s because of one that I’m living in the apartment I’m at now, as he passed it on to me when he moved out, just as he had received it from another Irish immigrant who went back home.

It was strange for me to encounter people who recognized me as one of their own, yet I wasn’t one of their own. I did the usual things: fostering a love for Guinness, getting into Irish music (more rock than traditional, think The Pogues), and getting more into Irish literature. I had never known who J.P. Donleavy was, and reading A Fairy Tale of New York blew my mind at the time. As did The Ginger Man. But after that, it seemed like he was endlessly repeating himself with the stock character of the wily drunkard American who goes back to Ireland to live the life of a country gentleman.

Another problem with J.P. Donleavy was that I’d constantly come across these young Irish-American guys raised around New York who worshipped him, and tried to emulate not just him, but any Irish artistic figure. Which meant only one thing: alcoholism. They had this romantic images in their heads of being drunk off their asses all the time, and everyone would find them charming in their sense of Irishness. But it was never true. I can still recall an acquaintance passing out at a party after drinking half a bottle of Jamesons and shitting his pants. Again, the sort of thing that seems cool or funny when you’re 25, but, man, the guy was just a pathetic drunk, and I shudder to think what he’s doing these days.

I can still recall an old college friend asking what I was going to do for St. Patrick’s Day one year in the early 90s. “Oh,” I sniffed, “probably come home from work and read some William Butler Yeats poems. I surely won’t be going to any bars.” What a pompous asshole I was. As far in the other direction as so many guys went with the alcoholic Irishman image, I thought I was on some higher road to totally deny that. (I can’t fault anyone who wants to stay out of bars on St. Patrick’s day, but by the same token, you can have a lot of fun with tons of people in a bar who normally aren’t there.)

After awhile, I felt a bit put off by how over-the-top so many Irish folks made themselves out to be in New York. It was like they couldn’t accept being basic, every-day white Americans, so they attached themselves to this romantic image which wasn’t really who they were. Or at least I recognized strains of that in myself and backed off a bit. When you meet actual people from Ireland, they always seem perplexed by Americans who call themselves “Irish.” I remember a guy in a bar telling me: “When I’m back home, and I see an American coming on one of those walking tours, I don’t think, ‘Oh, look, here comes the Irishman.’ I think ‘Oh, look, here comes the Yank.’”

By the same token, back in Pennsylvania, my dad married a Protestant, and this was considered a mixed marriage at the time. And for how sweet my aunties were, there were many times later on in their lives when my Mom would drop off my grandmother to spend time with them, and they'd inundate her with anti-Protestant rhetoric to the point that Mom would spend the next week or two hearing why she was such an awful human being for not being Catholic. Understand that this occurred after my grandmother had a severe stroke which left her greatly disabled, and my Mom basically did everything in terms of taking care of her. It's to Mom's credit that she never once blew her cool, or told my aunties to fuck off, which would have been totally within her right.

The whole Catholic/Protestant theme was nowhere near as desperate as it really was/is in Ireland, but it was a recognizable rift, not just in my own family, but in our town. The kids knew what denomination all of us were, and it would sometimes come out in fights, but usually only then. The cemeteries on the hill in our town were split by a white picket fence – Protestants on one side, the Catholics on the other. The fence is gone, but I imagine it will take years for people to be buried there and have that subtle barrier broken.

But overall, I do get a kick out of “the Irish” in New York. Because you get right down to it, there is that strange bond I can’t deny, and so many odd little cultural touchstones that I recognize we were all raised with, most related to Catholicism and all the rules we had to tolerate as kids. Confession, catechism, confirmation, etc. I think with being Irish, it’s more a recognition of temperament and sense of humor than anything else. You can heap all these other things on top of it: love of the Notre Dame football team, drinking Guinness, being into The Pogues and such, acquiring a huge library of Irish authors, etc. But that shit doesn’t make you Irish, much like listening to hiphop doesn’t make you black (a message lost on so many culture-less kids over the past two decades).

I think I’m noticing the difference between cultural affectation, which runs rampant in our country, and the simple reality of quietly being raised with traditions that don’t readily announce themselves and aren’t recognizable to the outside world. Irish? Nah – I’m an American when it comes down to nationalities. And a non-hyphenated one at that. But it is interesting for me to meet other people of Irish lineage, or actual Irish people, and get those strange little jolts of recognition.


Jordan Hoffman said...

Seen the Departed yet?

Doesn't exactly paint Irish culture as anything too fantastic (saltines, violence & impotence.) Good music, though.

William S. Repsher said...

Haven't seen it, but I'd like to -- more so for another reason. If I'm not mistaken, William Monahan, who got his start at the NYPress, wrote the screenplay. Man, is that guy kicking ass. I still don't know how this happened, but more power to him.

I suspect the Boston Irish are a lot like the NYC/New Jersey Irish: over the top.

Jordan Hoffman said...

I *knew* I knew that name from somewhere. Yeah, it's the same dude. Mazel Tov, I guess.

Yeah, it's a good film. You'll dig it.