Mar 172011

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!


  36 Responses to “Rock Against Racism: The Undertones

  1. misterioso

    Preach it, brother! Say it loud, I’m Irish and I’m proud! Not a drop of Irish blood in me, actually, but as a student and an enthusiast of Irish literature and history, and a lover of the great and beautiful land of Ireland, I salute you! A Nation Once Again! A Nation Once Again!

  2. Joyce, Beckett, and Yeats. And The Pogues.

  3. BigSteve

    I didn’t realize until I moved away from New Orleans that other places don’t celebrate St. Joseph’s Day (March 19th) as an Italian festival so much. In the Big Easy, depending on when the weekend falls, the St. Patrick’s and St. Joseph’s parade are sometimes combined into one huge Italo-Irish party. You could celebrate both parts of your heritage there.

    In Kansas City, where I live now, there’s a huge St. Patrick’s Day celebration, despite the fact that there’s not a significant Irish-American population here. It’s just an excuse for a party.

    I’m only one quarter Irish on my mother’s side, but today is my birthday, and my parents chose Patrick as my middle name for that reason. I’m having Irish breakfast tea at work right now and really cutting loose.

  4. Happy Birthday!

  5. BigSteve

    Not to make this all about me, here are some other music-related March 17th birthdays:

    1884 – Alcide Nunez, American jazz clarinetist (d. 1934)
    1900 – Alfred Newman [Randy’s uncle], American film composer (d. 1970)
    1919 – Nat King Cole, American singer (d. 1965)
    1930 – Paul Horn, American jazz flutist
    1938 – Zola Taylor, American singer (The Platters) (d. 2007)
    1941 – Paul Kantner, American musician
    1944 – Pattie Boyd, British photographer and model
    1944 – John Sebastian, American singer and songwriter
    1945 – Elis Regina, Brazilian singer (d. 1982)
    1951 – Scott Gorham, American musician (Thin Lizzy)
    1967 – Billy Corgan, American musician
    1970 – Gene Ween, American musician
    1972 – Melissa Auf der Maur, Canadian musician

  6. alexmagic

    So why do Irish Potatoes have coconut in them, anyway? As somone who is not a fan of coconut, I never understood or approved of that.

  7. alexmagic

    I thought for sure that was going to be a link to a clip of Paul’s Grandfather briefly breaking into that during the jailhouse scene in A Hard Day’s Night.

  8. I’ve always thought of you as a cross between Nat King Cole and Scott Gorham!

  9. misterioso

    Couldn’t find it! Love that bit. “With their fists like matured hams,” I think he says. Classic.

  10. Did anyone ever pay full price for that first Undertones album? Fifty cents at Rocky Mountain Records (And Tapes!) in Boulder, late 1982.

    And as a 50% Irish-American living in Boston, St. Patrick’s Day can go fuck itself.

  11. A new poll question is born. Thanks!

  12. BigSteve

    How do you guys remember what you paid for an album 30 years ago?

  13. misterioso

    First round at the Plough and Stars is on you, then.

  14. Speaking for myself, for the longest time the sticker was still on the cover. It may still be there, for all I know. I usually don’t pull off stickers from used albums.

  15. Well into my 30s, I could look at any LP in my collection and tell you where I bought it, when I bought it (sometimes down to the day, more often the month and year) and sometimes how much I paid for it. I remember the 50-cent Undertones LP because that’s one of the great value-for-money transactions of my life.

  16. Ethnic events = party time, so let’s have a few.

    I was at an Italian festival in Chicago a couple of years ago and, to my delight, The Old 97s were playing. After a few songs, Rhett Miller said “Well were really happy to be here . . . but we have no idea why they hired us.”

  17. Melissa Auf der Maur’s album last year was interesting . . . I would not go as far as saying it was good. This is kind of a freaky video.

  18. alexmagic

    Yeah, I think it’s the most underappreciated part of the whole movie. Talks about how they’ll need to break out the “mahogany truncheons” if they want to take him down.

    I now think my greatest failing as a contributor to the RTH labs may have been in that thread where I piggybacked a scientific study of the athletic abilities of the Beatles as presented in A Hard Day’s Night onto the Mod’s similar review of The Jam. It didn’t occur to me to take genetics into account considering that “Johnny McCartney will give you a run for yer threepence ha’penny!” line from Paul’s Grandfather.

  19. 2000 Man

    Happy birthday! I guess we can call the first green beer I had the one I tipped towards you!

  20. What are you talking about? I’m first generation Irish-American, the only one in even my immediate family to be born in the US, & I’ve never once heard of that bizarre combo!

    By the way, we never ate corned beef & cabbage, either.

  21. I bought The Undertones album new.

    The rest of the stuff on this thread, I’m going to refrain from commenting on, because St. Patrick’s Day and all its attendant clichés just piss me off, as do most examples of hokey American “ethnic pride”.

  22. BigSteve

    I’m glad it wasn’t just me who didn’t know about this:

  23. How can you people celebrate St. Patrick’s Day without Irish potatoes? They’re one of the ultimate “love ’em or hate ’em” treats – and totally authentic, no?

  24. Your powers of refraining from commenting need some work! (I’m kidding with you, in case my tone is not clear.)

  25. ladymisskirroyale

    Ah, the Irish, a life-long fascination. My mother is English and (she denies it now) on St. Patrick’s Day had us dress in orange. None of us got the reference; I think we just thought Mom was being her European self (growing up in AZ, anything different could pass for “European”). When I would go to visit my English relatives, we heard all sort of Irish jokes and saw lots of Irish joke books.

    The Irish always seemed so interesting, so I ended up dating a lot of Irish-American guys. That wasn’t too hard given that I spent about 14 years in RI, where everyone was Irish or Italian (and where the one-two punch of St. Joseph’s Day and St. Patrick’s Day was a nice way to get through some of the winter doldrums), but where being an Episcopalian really stood out. Eventually, I met and married a man whose relatives are all Irish cops in Greenwich, CT. Mr. Royale actually has a much more Irish surname and is a distant relative of Jackie Gleason (and oh, Danny Boy, his family sure makes it seem like it’s a pretty close link). When my English relatives first met him, one said to him, “Oh good, at first I thought thought you said you were Welsh.”

    My husband cares not a whit for traditional Irish culture, with the exception of Samuel Beckett, James Joyce, and Kevin Shields. I’m the one wanting corned beef and cabbage, a black and tan, and the complete works of Colm Toibin.

  26. mockcarr

    For the sake of the poll I’m using Hypnotised as the example. I know my used copy of the dB’s Repercussion has a sticker from Sounds on it. That annoys my girlfriend. She probably thinks I’m acting like Minnie Pearl leaving the tags on her hat or something.

  27. Jackie Gleason is brilliant!

  28. mockcarr

    You probably feel like Katherine Hepburn’s character in State Of The Union where she’s talking politics after drinking a bunch sazaracs and the pols are bringing up the hyphenates like irish-american, and she asks “can you be both?”

  29. mockcarr

    Still, you ought to be careful, or “bang,zoom…to the moon, Ladymisskirroyale”

  30. bostonhistorian

    In Boston we celebrate both St. Patrick’s Day and Evacuation Day, which marked the British leaving Boston on March 17th, 1776. Living in Boston has turned me off Irish culture since we have plenty of faux-Irish and I’m suspect anyway because my last name sounds English, even though the person who arrived in America with it was a Catholic from Cork.

    Yeats hit the nail on the head: “Being Irish, he had an abiding sense of tragedy, which sustained him through temporary periods of joy.”

  31. ladymisskirroyale

    Luckily, Mr. Royale has more of the sensitive artist-type personality and behavior.

    I would say my in-laws most resemble and act like Irish Flintstones. Mr. Royale would agree with this.

  32. That’s funny. You are aware, I’m sure, that the Flintstones are animated versions of the couples on The Honeymooners, right? I love both of those shows!

  33. My name is as Irish as they come (I took Patrick as a confirmation name and that’s barely the beginning) and the major impression of my trips to Ireland have left on me is that I am a true American. The people in Ireland are the Irish.

    That said,I’ve seen a statistic that there are many times more people claiming Irish decent in the US, Canada, England, Australia and NZ today than have ever lived on the Irish Isles. So maybe we are the Irish! Feck ’em!

    And go easy on Phil Lynott. I don’t think he is subject to the morbid self-destruction cult that attends Morrison, Ian Curtis and Cobain. He was a conflicted guy, a poetic soul with a tough guy bravado that he kept up because that was his lot. As a mixed race guy, he got that part of the Irish temperament down.

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