If my father’s side of my family kept their genealogical records straighter than they did their own lives I’m one-eighth Irish. This should give me at least one-eighth reason for joy on St. Patrick’s Day, but a childhood of family induced shame of that small part of my heritage still makes it tough for me to muster any enthusiasm for the wearing of the green and all that goes with the holiday.
Deep down I spend part of St. Patrick’s Day, including the days that lead up to it, mocking the Irish and their history of drinking and bad food. It’s a time for my Italian-American pride to secretly bask in the glory of my maternal side’s delicious food and sensuous homeland. It’s a time for me to derisively laugh at the memory of my dead-but-much-longer-than-that-gone father and all the hell he caused for the family.
“Jimmy,” my maternal grandmother—my first favorite person on this earth—would rib me from as early a time as I can remember, “are you Italian or Irish?”
The Italians and Irish were warring factions in my Mom’s family, long before my Mom married an “Irish” guy from her family’s neighboring, rival neighborhood. Her family was one of a pocket of Italian-American families living in a predominantly Polish-American neighborhood in Philadelphia. The Polish, according to my Mom’s family and their Italian-American friends, were “good people, very clean.” Cleanliness was next to Italian-ness in my family. The Irish, who lived just blocks away in a noticeably grimier part of the city, were “dirty—and they drink,” my grandmother and mother would be sure to add.
“Are you Italian or Irish,” my grandmother would continue to prod as little-old-me would squirm in her lap and search for the right answer.
“Both,” I’d finally answer, making my first use of what would be come to known as The Wilson Choice (ie, the appropriate answer to the popular ’70s teenage boy question “Ann or Nancy Wilson?”), “I’m English, Irish, Italian, and Welsh.” I’d always say them in alphabetical order, probably out of some sense of fairness, and now that I’ve got two boys of my own with Polish blood mixed in (“That’s good,” said my grandmother, when she first met my wife and asked her about her ethnicity, “your people are very clean!”) I make sure to add their Polish heritage in the proper spot in the list.
This was all fun and games when I was 3 years old, but 5 or 6 years later the “Italian or Irish?” question took on a more sinister tone. By that point my parents’ marriage was nearing its explosive end (although the aftershocks would rock those involved for another dozen years). My family matriarchs’ collective prejudices against the Irish were proving all too “true.”
“Jimmy, are you Italian or Irish?”
I continued to answer “Both” followed by an alphabetical listing of my full international stew. Why didn’t the English take any shit for my parents’ crumbling marriage? Did that handsome, swarthy Welsh singer my Mom dug, Tom Jones, single-handedly excuse his people’s role in this mess? And what about my great uncle in Italy who polished an entire bottle of red wine at dinner in the family’s ancestral home in Abruzzo one night when I was 8 years old, slipping me pours of wine under the table. It was the first time I ever got tipsy, thanks to a native Italian relative on Italian soil. Tough stuff for a kid to get his head around!
There would be greater challenges in the fallout from my parents’ marriage and my Dad’s eventual abandonment of me and my brother a few years later. This period solidified my own prejudices and killed any enjoyment I may have gotten out of St. Patrick’s Day and all things “Irish” (eg, the Irish tie-in to the Boston Red Sox) except for one thing: Irish potatoes. I love those things, and my Mom, in maybe her only continuing act of kindness toward my one-eighth Irish heritage, still buys me a box of Irish potatoes every St. Patrick’s Day. In my early teenage years and even until the last few years, Irish potatoes were the only reason to celebrate this holiday.
In my college years and early 20s, when I fulfilled my Mom’s worst expectations and became a pretty heavy drinker and then some, even though I loved Guiness Stout I took no joy in being Irish. As members of my long-gone father’s family, including his two younger brothers, dropped like flies from self-abuse, it was hard to take much pride in the fact that I was following in their footsteps. That old John Belushi “Luck of the Irish” rant was more like it, as far as I was concerned.
During these years of self-loathing, however, I first recognized a small accumulation of things to be proud of regarding my sliver of Irish heritage, namely The Undertones, Van Morrison, James Joyce, and Joyce Cary. I’ll spare you a recounting of my experiences with this quartet of Irish artists, but buying a used copy of the first Undertones record for $1.99 in Philadelphia’s old Book Trader on South Street around 1979 was one of the key record purchases of my teen years. The band’s energetic tunes and cheerfully downbeat take on the world were right up my alley. After years of immersing myself in their works and the works of these other Irish artists the whole “gift of gab” thing started to ring true in a positive way. The “twinkle” in an Irish person’s eye was something to cherish and something I could begin to see in myself. My knack for finding parking spaces in any city was the result of my Irish luck.
Today, like the previous 10 or so St. Patrick’s Days, I will listen to nothing but The Undertones and Van Morrison. I may even play the few U2 songs I like, but no Thin Lizzy. That Phil Lynott guy seemed like a mess, and all the romanticizing that still goes on about him still reminds me of all the dead, wasted “poets” who checked out of my life too early.
Erin Go Bragh, and all that jazz!