These Irish Eyes

Irish immigrants in San Francisco 1905
Image via Wikipedia

A ventriloquist is telling Irish jokes in a pub, when a tipsy Irishman stands up: “You’re making’ out we’re all dumb and stupid. I ought a punch you in the nose.”
“I’m sorry sir, I…” the ventriloquist stuttered. “Not you,” says the Irishman, “I’m talking to that little fella on yer knee.” – Anonymous

My mother was born a Black-Irish beauty with raven hair and sapphire blue eyes. The great oak of her family tree splintered out of diasporas of English, German and Irish immigrants. She possessed her father’s athleticism and tenacity but everything else about her – from her sense of adventure, compulsive candor and those deep opalescent eyes- was Irish.

Whenever she would return to the home of her Irish grandparents she was overwhelmed by the whitewater of Irish family chaos.  The family’s summer home in Marin County would transform into an enchanted encampment of last supper nights and days of swimming in redwood shaded ebony creeks. Hers were soft, green grass afternoons where the fog would roll over the oak shrouded hills and spill like soft cold cotton down the ravines and canyons of Mt Tamalpais.

Her grandmother, Katie, was an iron-fisted Irish matron who ran boarding houses in a rough part of San Francisco’s Western Edition in the 1920s. When immigrant Kathryn Carolan married Thomas Belton in 1904, the couple grafted ancient families from the west country counties of Ireland. The Carolan name most likely grew out of clan lines of the Ciar, or “dark people”, tracing their roots to the Clare and Kerry –  the most rugged and wild of Irish counties.  His people hailed from further north, a fertile place marked by ancient tombs of inhabitants dating back to Ireland’s earliest man.  The land seemed to be forever looking into a sunset. It fell moved and tumbled to the Southwest ultimately dropping precipitously into the Atlantic at the spectacular Cliffs of Moher.

Thomas Belton loved America. When the Spanish Civil War broke out, he enlisted at 19 and served in Company M, the First Regiment of California United States Volunteer Infantry in 1898.  In the summer of 1898, Company M embarked for Peking and carried on to Manila where they participated in a series of skirmishes and battles.  He served for 18 months and was mustered out in 1900.  Most veterans did not speak much about the war unless they had been drinking. Alcohol seemed to unlock some great emotional arsenal that lay dormant under the foundations of most Irish families.  Whiskey was the key to a cache of memories and moods that would often lead to red-eyed revelation or a Pandora’s Box of conflict.

My mother grew up wrapped in Irish heritage. While my grandfather quietly considered his wife’s Gaelic roots a languid liability, he had been seduced by a “house that hugs” – a multi-generational hurricane of working class Irish immigrants that clung together and carved out a middle class life in a country they had come to love for all of its possibilities.  Having run away from a rigid immigrant upbringing, he could not help but feel safe with this reckless bawdy clan that adopted him as a prodigal son-in-law.

Donncha Cleary walked into a bar in Dublin and asked the barman if he had heard the latest Kerryman joke. ‘I’m warning you,’ said the barman, ‘That I come from Tralee in Kerry meself.’ ‘Dat’s alright,’ said Donncha, ‘I’ll tell it slowly.’

There were uncles and cousins that worked as roustabouts along the docks and warehouses of San Francisco’s bustling wharf – each week falling in and out of trouble. They were hard working, self-proclaimed socialists who loathed the class system that they had left behind in the United Kingdom. They particularly despised the wealthy Nob Hill patricians that presided over the great steel, transportation and manufacturing monopolies of early 19th century industry.  Standing at the base of California Street, they would ape at the backs of bankers and attorneys – – catcalling as they climbed on to cable cars and coaches to return home to “Snob Hill.”

My mother considered her Irish genetics a two edged sword.  It seemed that to be Irish was a blessed curse that combined the best and worst characteristics of mankind. The tenacity and will to survive that characterized her relatives were strengths, that when taken to excess, would lead to stubborn collisions with the bottle and the law. At an early age, she warned us that we “were Irish, and that means you have two strikes against you.” As a baseball player, I pondered this metaphor. It seemed that if the Irish could endure famines, wars, occupation and economic hardship, an Irishman must be a hell of a tough out to get out.  While one might be coming to the plate with two strikes, the average Gael could foul off the hardest pitches that Life could hurl. The Irish gene was preprogrammed to survive.

My mother used expressions like “Irish Twins” to describe siblings born within ten months of one another. Later in life, she would explain a malady known as the “Irish Flu”- a morning condition characterized by head aches, nausea and disorientation usually following a night out drinking. She believed in the “Luck of The Irish” and attributed the endurance of the Irish to their belief in St Patrick, Catholicism and the family unit.  She loved and at the same time, pitied the Irish. Of all God’s children, the Irish were the runts of the litter – born to an emerald green island of rock, hard-scrabble and eternal subjugation.

She had been raised a Catholic until her German father expressed a preference for the less oppressive theology of Martin Luther. In doing so, he further perpetuated the internecine troubles of the Protestants and Catholics. To her father, Catholicism was mysticism and Vatican hocus-pocus.  Protestantism was direct and did not attempt to assert temporal leadership ahead of the Holy Trinity. She spent Southern California winters as a Presbyterian and summers as a closet Catholic. By the time she was twenty, she could have qualified as an Episcopalian.  To be Irish and not be capable of uttering the Rosary was to be lost in perpetual purgatory.  Her grandmother would simply have none of it. Every Carolan and Belton relative would be safely in heaven five minutes before the Devil knew they were dead.  She would make certain of it. Being Protestant was the equivalent of swimming with water wings or artificial props.  Luther had not had the constitution to stay faithful to a doctrine that required adherence to secular and sacred rules. To be Celtic and Catholic was to suffer and still endure.

O’Gara was arrested and sent for trial for armed bank robbery. After due deliberation, the jury foreman stood up and announced, ‘Not guilty.’

‘That’s grand,’ shouted O’Gara, ‘Does that mean I get to keep the money?’

While St Patrick’s Day was a secular holiday in our household, it was a day where legends, leprechauns and laughter echoed across our dinner table.  Invariably, “the little people” would find their way into our icebox turning our milk green, recklessly dropping chocolate coins from pots of gold or mischievously hiding our shoes in odd places. If you did not remember to don a garment of green, you were likely to endure eight hours of pinches and chest twisters as a punishment for not paying respects to the fifth century patron Saint of Ireland.  It was a day of nostalgia and emerald green emotion. I looked down on the Italians and the human stew of other immigrants.  Although I was a mongrel blend of English, French, German and Irish heritage, I was forever wearing Ireland on my sleeve.  I longed for a surname that ended in O’ anything.  I worked to hide my ties to the German farmer, the indentured Englishman and the 12th century Huguenot who ran from everything. These other cultures had made their own contributions to America but there was something special about being Irish. We were the hard knuckles that had helped form the fist of early nineteenth century America.

I grew to envy my Irish-Catholic friends.  They had saints for virtually every human condition, weekly absolution in the form of confession and their own football team – Notre Dame.  There was certain misogyny in Protestant faith as the Virgin Mary was relegated to a secondary role.  In Catholicism, the Virgin Mary was “ our mother” – a reassuring image for a kid living in a landscape filled with Old testament ( angry with lots of rules ) fathers and corporal punishment.  The iconic image of the Virgin Mary would periodically manifest herself on the sides of buildings, in tree stumps and even on toast.  She was trying to contact her children daily to reassure them with miracles and maybe even slip them a dollar bill to get an ice cream.

Meanwhile, we sat in the Presbyterian Church, waiting for the smallest sign of a divine spark.  Down the street at Saturday evening Mass, there was a forest fire of signs – beatifications, stigmata, miracles and even (gulp) the occasional exorcism.  If you got into paranormal trouble, you would not call a minister, you would want a whiskey drinking Irish-Catholic priest to be your wingman.  These soldiers of God had wrestled with John Barleycorn for thousands of years and could recognize his cloven hooves from a half-kilometer.

“May Those who love us, keep loving us. May those who do not love us, may God turn their heart.  If He cannot turn their heart, may he turn their ankles so we might know them by their limp.” Irish Blessing

In 2000, I would travel to Dublin several times as the Celtic Tiger was awakened by its inclusion in the EU. Eire was experiencing positive immigration for the first time in a century.  The tragic legacy of generations that faced the bitter choice of starving to remain in the land they loved or exile – emigrating abroad to lives that might never witness their return – was finally exorcized. The Irish it seemed had come home.

Yet, not unlike the tragic epiphanies of James Joyce or the suffocating poverty and redemption of Frank McCourt, the Irish do not seem to be able to endure their own affluence. The familiar demons of unemployment, economic collapse and uncertainty have since returned from their temporary exile. Life has returned to normal.  An entire culture bred to endure seems to once again, be receiving deuces in the card game of life.

Ireland’s loss is America’s gain as a new generation of Irish immigrants is once again arriving in America. The Bronx and Yonkers have most recently witnessed a resurgence of young Irish seeking a better tomorrow.  They come as they have for over 300 years, wanting to meet or exceed the standard of living of their parents.  At the same time, they begin their exile from the land they love.  You don’t always hear it in their self effacing humor or their contagious laughter.  You cannot distinguish it in their determined work ethic or aggressive patriotism.  But you can see it in their eyes. They are brown, green and blue stained glass windows into a millenium of souls – these Irish eyes.

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