The Irish Renaissance? A terrible blather is born
March 23, 1972
This piece is dedicated to Frank McCourt who, with the wisdom of Solomon, spent the day lying on his bloody Irish arse.
Sweet sufferin’ Jesus, thank be it is over for another year.
I’m no good at these occasions of calendared merriment. I go mad with depression on holidays, and for good reason. At Christmas it is demanded I be gentle beyond my means, on New Year’s I’m called upon to be a lunatic with a monkey’s hat on my head, at Easter there is a suit to be bought I can’t afford, and on St. Patrick’s Day my consumption is expected to equal the reserves of the Grand Coulee Dam. As a man grows older, he longs to pass his life away in a rosary of innocuous Wednesdays.
Now as a race the Irish are no more mediocre than any other group in large numbers, but this year they were enraptured with their own purity. Since Northern Ireland began to dominate the headlines, there has been flap about an Irish Renaissance or what-have-you, and every paddy in sight has bored me wit the beauty of us all.
In point of fact every non-Irishman I met also mumbled leprechaun lyrics in my ear. Greeks quoted Yeats, Jews sang ballads, and Croatians gave me clenched fist salutes. Irishmen who had developed their biceps by throwing bricks at peace and civil rights marchers compared themselves to the Vietnamese and the blacks. A terrible blather is born.
The whole experience kept me in a maudlin drunk for two weeks. The only green I sported was what I was hacking out of my lungs every morning, and by the end of it you could have written “Goodyear” across my liver. My mailbox was stuffed with pleas for every Irish cause from Derry to Harrisburg, and the Irish-American Cultural Society (that must be an elite group) demanded a contribution of $50, $100, or $150 from me, which was an insult beyond repair. I rationalized that if I was a trophy of their culture they should have been sending me checks.
Total strangers elbowed their way to the bar to discuss our “literary tradition.” I said fine, let’s talk about the Daily News and the Brooklyn Tablet and the Baltimore Catechism. But this didn’t seem to satisfy them, so I had to recite how we had starved O’Casey to death and turned Shaw and Wilde into the best bogus limeys since Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., how Joyce, soused in Paris, trembled over nightmares of hell for sins of self-abuse, and how Samuel Beckett has adopted a foreign tongue. But there was no stopping them. They mistook all this bile for vaunted Irish wit and hugged me, pronouncing I was a regular ould sod brother.
Radio and television shows beckoned me to take on the airways to extol my heritage. What in the name of hell did these people want to know? I had cauliflower ears courtesy of the nuns. Every time I get acid indigestion I check into a hospital for a biopsy, fall on my knees, and say an act of contrition, because of my esthetic concern over which band of angels I will end up singing with.
Certainly they didn’t want to know about my early sex life, because if they did, all they would have had to do was air a minute of silence on their networks. I was terrified to leave my home in the morning for fear there would be a group of sociologists on my doorstep waiting to kidnap me off to the Smithsonian: “Authentic Ethnic Found in Wilds of Village.”
But when the day finally came, sanity returned. There was the parade in all its glory, with Jack McCarthy narrating on tv in a borrowed accent so heavy St. Christopher couldn’t have shouldered it. McCarthy was adorned in a white fireman’s hat, presented to him by one Raymond Gimmler (best remembered for staging the pro-war march of 1965).
As one women’s college group passed, Jack cooed, “Their proudest claim to fame is that they produce Catholic mothers,” a curriculum, one presumed, that started with a drop of holy water and ended with a splash of sperm.
But one has to admit Jack knows the nature of every Irishman’s dreams — to make a fortune in the new country and spend it in the old. He spouted blessings on Irish Airlines and various hotels and resorts in Ireland, and you knew old Jack was in for a grand summer.
They came in legions: the sons of every county, those out-of-step high school bands (we reserve our rhythm for the sheets, not the streets), the good nurses, the good clergy, the good civil servants all paunches and pensions, and the Grand Marshal himself, proudly stating that that very evening 2500 Friendly Sons of St. Patrick would be attending a dinner at which Spiro would be the guest speaker. Agnew was to repeat his triumph on Sunday morning at a breakfast of the Holy Name Society of the Police Department before 3500 wildly cheering guests.
When our Renaissance came marching by, wearing black armbands and chanting at the pols in the grandstand, they were told to keep their arses moving; or else it was time for a commercial interruption. Jack put a final benediction on the whole affair with his patented tagline: “May ye be a half hour dead before the divil knows it.”
As I walked into a saloon that night in my beret and shaggy locks, a fireman with the face of an uncooked roast beef looked up and snarled, “Hello, Pierre.” It was the first honest comment I had heard in weeks, and I was tempted to say it was grand to be back among my own.
I have lived as Irish-American for 35 years. I have endured it, and it is too late in the march for me to believe we are going to become champions of humanity. Which is not an insult, since I don’t believe any other race has a franchise on that claim either.
So I hope that by next year all the blather fades, and the cynical gilders of humanity spend their day in church with the saints and let the people have the street. If not, look for me to be marching in the middle of the parade, carrying a red, white, and blue banner, and loudly proclaiming: “Ireland, Get Out of America.”
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on March 15, 2019