It is customary in my family on St. Patrick’s Day to ask every Irish person you meet if he’s been to City Hall yet. When someone asks why, you tell him, “To get your ass painted green.”
This is a gentle but firm reminder to never stray into the precincts of one of the more odious ethnic stereotypes: the “professional” Irishman. Sometimes referred to as the “stage” Irishman, this is a poor sod who is nearly drowning in nostalgia and will, at the drop of a plastic green derby, start in with the usual 75 varieties of horseshit about the place, people and culture.
Slobbering on about dear Erin, the sunsets and rainbows, salmon jumping through the mist, dark Rosaleen, maidens dancing at the crossroads and all the rest of the flapjaw too ra loo ra loo ra. Best to ignore him, feel compassion. But, if he tells you that St. Patrick drove the snakes out of Ireland, say, yes, he did indeed, and they all swam to New York and joined the police force.
Fortunately, this character is not to be found Saturday night at the Irish American Society’s Annual Fair on Willis Avenue in Mineola. The Society, founded in 1939, has been a haven for Irish immigrants in the mass migration of every decade since. The tradition of the young leaving to find work has slowed dramatically now in the ’90s with the “Celtic Tiger,” as the phenomenal Irish economic boom is called, allowing people to stay home and make a living in their native land. But Long Island remains a stronghold: The Society still has nearly 1,000 dues-paying members taking advantage of a full program of events—teaching music, dancing and the Irish language, as well as staging concerts, readings and plays. A new bar has been installed and the dilapidated library is being categorized and updated.
The fair is quiet on Saturday, with people stopping for drinks and browsing the booths selling china, crystal, embroidery, tapes, cassettes and linens. At the entrance is a long table of Irish food, tea and woolens. This is run by Tommy Alcock, 56, and his 20-year-old son, Patrick. Along with his wife, Kathleen, they have an Irish gift shop in Rockville Centre. Asked how long he’d been married, Tommy says, with one eye on tall, beautiful Ann Marie Walsh, who is looking at some tea tins, “Well, I’m not married at all this weekend.”
Ann Marie smiles and nods, saying simply, “Dreamer.”
“But you’re the dream, love,” Alcock says, “that I’m dreaming.”
Alcock is originally from County Kildare, worked 29 years in London and has been here for 10. I ask him the question of the evening: What does being Irish mean to you? Son Patrick quickly interjects, “Being able to party like a madman and get away with it.”
“No,” Alcock says, “although it is an advantage. I’d have to say it means heritage to me. That I come from not just a place, but from a whole history and culture that goes way back. That I come from a whole world I carry within me wherever I go.”
“And wherever you go,” Ann Marie says, “you’ll find a friend.”
She is 33, an executive at GreenPoint Mortgage. She has a booth at the fair giving information about no-document loans. Pitched at Irish immigrants, they allow people to purchase homes without employment records, tax records, assets or other documents. If you’re working and your credit’s good, she wants to do business with you. First-generation Irish-American, she answers The Question: “It’s family, I suppose. Having access to a rich and deep culture.”
Mike Quinn, 64, makes like Tevye and says, “Tradition.” Caroline Jordan, 25, a financial analyst, says, “A big family. And not just my own immediate family. The whole Irish family.”
I know what they mean. Before I went to Ireland, I decided that if the place contained elements of the stage or professional Irishman, I would bolt immediately. I stayed two years, in Dublin and the remote and lovely “back of beyond” of County Clare. At times I went North to report on that vile little war known as “The Troubles.” I learned something about what being Irish meant. Tradition, family, culture, yes, but the real insight was that the Irish carry a duality within them. This duality creates conflict, and just as conflict is necessary for drama, so it makes people a bit more interesting than those condemned to only one dimension.
F. Scott Fitzgerald thought that “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function. One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise.” He was speaking of individuals but really was describing an entire people.
The Irish duality is most apparent in the two wings of religion and language. When Patrick converted the Irish (the only conversion of a nation, by the way, with no martyrs), a vivid and powerful Celtic paganism was overlaid with Christianity. This tension of two solid traditions coexisting in one people is essentially what makes the Irish who they are. An example of this is the ancient stone carvings seen on some churches called sheela-na-gigs. These are nude female figures, legs open, exposing their genitals unashamedly. They are Celtic representations of fertility, but also a celebration of female sexual power. The early Christians put them on the churches without comment. When people say the Irish have no sense of the erotic or sensual, I wonder if they’ve encountered James Joyce, Edna O’Brien, Oscar Wilde, Brian Friel (his Dancing at Lughnasa captures perfectly the integrated pagan and Christian). Conflicted all, but all knew something about earthly delights.
With language it was the same. England, by law, banned Irish at certain points in history to ensure that English would be the official language. Irish is one of the oldest written languages; the Celts didn’t come by their poetic reputation recently. The marvelous gift of turning language on its ear is simply, in many cases, a literal translation of Irish into English, making something new that sings.
Living in Ireland (and I go back whenever I can), I found the people warm, kind, sincere, straightforward, helpful in every way, and hospitable beyond anything I’d ever encountered. But, then, there was something else. I found the other side of the coin working as a reporter and studying Irish history (which Joyce said was a nightmare he was always trying to awake from). Oppressed for centuries by a stronger, wealthier neighboring country, they had, like all victims of oppression, cultivated the values of deceit, cunning, false joy in the presence of strangers, envy, clannishness, bristling donkey-headed pride. And they remembered every slight no matter how petty or how long ago.
At times it seemed that’s all they had: memory of what had been done to them, and who among them was Judas. The Irish hated themselves equally with their enemy, the hatred a product of divide et impera, yet one more present from the masters, the Brits, the Sassenach, don’t you ever forget, oh God bless England so we pray, whack fol the diddle of the die dol day.
Betrayal, plotting, swift country justice by maiming, crippling, lynching. Rage and ballads, poetry and loss, imagination, whiskey and priests, death and insanity, exile, the wanderer, a rambler, a gambler, a long way from home, and if you don’t like me then leave me alone. A heritage of noble causes and ignoble people. Blather, slyness, clever at life, soft smiles to conceal the stone heart, and rage near at hand, easy to find and use, like a tool a good workman always replaces in the same spot so he won’t have to think when he wants it, but just reach out and there it is, ready to go to work.
This is to say nothing of the Irish vice of searuchas, translated to English as begrudgery. I once asked Frank McCourt if this was still prevalent. “They should put the word on the Irish flag,” he replied.
And I caution everyone: Only I am allowed to say what just has been said. It must be kept in the family. I’m thrilled at what is happening in the old country. In the North there has been a cease-fire for two years, and all parties are speaking in Belfast. The cataclysm of the past 30 years might be over for good. And, if that’s true, the nightmare of Anglo-Irish history, 800 years long, might vanish in a new awakening. People in Ireland are thriving in a high-tech economy, and here’s hoping it will continue.
At Saturday’s fair I speak with John Howard, a 57-year-old certified eccentric. He is holding an enormous tea cup, claiming it holds a quart and is flavored by six tea bags. “I’ll go through 15 or 20 of these a day, sure I will,” he says. You have to meet and hear people like this to believe it. I ask him The Question. “Being Irish?” Howard thinks for a moment. “That’s the problem. How can you not? And for God’s sake, why would you want to be anything else?”