Tuesday, March 17, 2015

The Irish Sense of Timing: Happy St. Patrick's Day

Today is St. Patrick's Day, which for many Irish Americans is a mixture of nostalgia and pride. This particular celebration for me is tinged with sadness, as it happens to be the 30th anniversary of the last Paddy's Day my Dad would know.

Even that sadness is very Irish in its nature, as Chesteron once noted:

For the Great Gaels of Ireland
Are the men that God made mad,
For all their wars are merry
And all their songs are sad.

This post is one of the first I wrote for this blog, with some edits.

I have a bit of Irish blood in the veins, courtesy of my father. He was proud of his heritage and embodied its characteristic traits: gregarious; a talent for storytelling; a decent tenor voice exercised regularly in church; an acquaintance with barley, hops, and yeast; and a deep love of family, like all Brooklyn Irish. He married a lovely Lutheran woman of Swiss/German/Norwegian descent, but that's a story for another day.

When I was at university in Southampton, England, on a college exchange program, I became the first of the clan to visit the old country.

It was a backpacking tour with a fellow American. We had crossed from Fishguard, Wales to Rosslare, Wexford, which meant by the time we got up to Dublin, it was late and cold and dark and we were very tired. We were trying to get to our B&B by metro bus, and weren’t sure which direction to go. So we waited on one side of the street, and when the bus came, the driver said we needed to be across the street to go in the other direction.

So over we went. It was now even colder and darker, we were beyond exhausted and time was dragging horribly. So this is what purgatory feels like? After forty-five minutes of standing in the freezing Dublin air, we finally see the bus coming along. The door opens, and it’s the same bus, same driver—

Huh. Well . . . .what . . .why didn’t you let us on over there?

“Well, you’d been going in the wrong direction, now, wouldn’t you?”

There is some funny logic there (and some toying with the young Americans).

When I told my father that story he laughed and laughed. He had never been to Ireland, but it struck a deep chord with him, reminding him of some of the distinctly Irish quirkiness of his own father and uncles.

Of course I learned what it is to be Irish American from him. Some things just happened organically in daily life,  like the Irish Coffee ritual and the tip that it's the brown sugar that separates the real from the faux.  Other lessons were very deliberate: like the year he hand wrote the words to important Irish songs for me: The Wild Colonial Boy, MacNamara's Band, The Irish Soldier Boy, and the most important, The Wearing of the Green. An important history lesson in itself, as a teenager the last line "For they're hanging men an' women there for the wearin' o' the Green," haunted me. It seems around the 1789 Irish Rebellion, the Brits so feared the nationalism of a color that wearing green was high treason, punishable by hanging. More about that here

"O Paddy dear, an' did ye hear the news that's goin' round?
The shamrock is by law forbid to grow on Irish ground;
St. Patrick's Day no more we'll keep, his colour can't be seen,
For there's a cruel law agin the wearin' o' the Green.

I met with Napper Tandy and he took me by the hand,
And he said, "How's dear old Ireland, and how does she stand?"
She's the most distressful country that ever yet was seen,
For they're hanging men an' women there for the wearin' o' the Green."

The Gift of a Trip to Ireland
After college I got a job as a copywriter for a travel company, writing the itineraries for the brochures of deluxe escorted tours. An idea popped into my head: I wanted to buy an escorted tour for my parents to see Ireland. Travel had never been part of their lives together. Money was usually tight, and 8 years of college bills was quite a strain. My father never talked about a desire to go to Ireland, but you knew it was there.

With help from my older brother, I found that we could buy my parents an escorted American Express trip. I became giddy at the idea. We would give it to them for Christmas, and the tour we picked was in May. Just perfect.

I bought a Fodor’s Guide to Ireland to wrap-up, and made a HUGE oak tag card. On the cover I put a big paper clock, with hands just before 12, and the words IT’S TIME . . . . (Inside): For you to go to Ireland ! surrounded by photos from the tour brochure. Everything was set.

On Christmas morning we gave the Fodor’s book to Mom to open, and the card to Dad. He seemed quite stunned. He became very quiet as it sunk in that his children had the means and the desire to give him this trip, a desire of a lifetime. Such moments are deeply vivid, and very rare.

And then . . .
And then, everything turned. My father was diagnosed with inoperable colon cancer in January, just after New Years. He died in April. The tour went on without him in May.

How cruel. How could God have denied him this trip ? How macabre and eerie my Christmas card: IT’S TIME. Yes, a phrase often associated with your time being up, but not here—-not on a happy Christmas morning, not about a great trip, not coming from me.

To make this all even more heart-wrenching, I had planned a trip myself to Ireland back in December, to go in March. I would be visiting a college friend who was doing post graduate work in Galway.

By March Dad was pretty ill, but it would have been too much of a shock to him if I canceled my trip, and so I went with the heaviest of hearts.  I remember spending a good part of one day crying in a church in Gort, the town nearest to Lady Gregory's Coole Park, where I had made a pilgrimage to visit Yeats's Wild Swans at Coole.

I got home on March 17, and we had the usual family gathering with my uncles/aunts/godparents. My dad was frail, but rallied to get dressed and join the gang. The photo above shows my Uncle John, his best friend of 30 years, at his side.

Dad died almost an exact month later, on April 16, which happened to be Easter Monday.  That was pretty cosmic.

It is only now, 20 years later, [now 30 years later!] that I can see what an Irish end my dad had. It was sad and tragic, yet imbued with that particular Irish sense of death we know from the great plays and poems of O’Casey and Synge, and Yeats: because life is so precious, death comes with irony, some irreverence, a tinge of comedy, and ultimately, hope.

I’ve been to Ireland several times since he died. I’ve got some new great stories to tell, the next time I see him.

The Irish Coffee ritual was not limited to St. Patrick's Day. And though Crosby sang about a "belt of Bushmills," it's from Northern Ireland & these were the days when that mattered. No money to the IRA. So Dublin Jameson it was.


blue girl said...

I'm sorry about your dad, M.A. Happy St. Patrick's Day to you, too.

Tim Footman said...

On the 17th, I will play the second Pogues album FECKIN' LOUD and raise a Jameson's in honour of your Da.

And I may even dance.

Wyndham said...

My grandmother once attended a funeral in her home village somewhere in Ireland during the 30s, the whole village was there, all of them related in some way. The man they were burying was a vicious, feckless wife-beater and my Nan told a brilliant story about how, as everyone got drunker and drunker and more emotional, they propped him up in the coffin and threw buns at him. There you go, my Irish family story.

M.A.Peel said...

Thanks B.G. It's nice that it's on a Saturday this year.

And it's always good to see the Brits. Tim, the dance, that's special.

Wyn--great story. It should be a scene in a movie.

scribbler50 said...

Beautiful post, M.A., with all the proper ingredients of a pure Irish tale. Comedy, tragedy, irony, and ultimately hope, and yes, that tinge of sentimentality. He'd be proud!

M.A.Peel said...

Thanks Scrib. Is it possible that you have a touch of the Irish yourself?

scribbler50 said...

Oh, a wee bit more than a touch, my friend!

Eddie said...

Wonderful read, glad I came across it. Certainly stirs up memories of gatherings that I wish I had paid more attention to while they were occurring. Something about youth wasted on the young.