I Never Felt More American Than When My Family Sang Irish Songs

More than any other day, March 17th reaffirmed for my family just how American we were. Each year we gathered at my grandmother’s house—aunts, uncles, cousins and friends—to practice the uncertain traditions of our distant heritage. Because it was my great-grandfather who had immigrated, we were nearly a century removed from the Old Country and the only links to our ethnic past were some grainy photographs, a few anecdotes and the inexpungible fact of our Celtic surname. Everything else had been given up or forgotten. But we lived in a Boston neighborhood that was heavily Irish and so every resident was obliged to honor, in some way, the memory of our patron saint. Since the date coincided with my grandmother’s birthday, it held an almost mystical significance and was, in order of sacredness, only second to Christmas and Easter.

The only thing predictable about Saint Patrick’s Day was that it started at the dinner table and ended in the den. Rising early, my grandmother and aunts would peel, slice, chop and boil what they thought to be traditional Irish Corned Beef & Cabbage. What resulted, however, was more like New England Boiled Dinner and was an overcooked concoction of brisket and native vegetables that would have made a Puritan reach for the salt. The meat was so stringy it was like chewing through wet rope and everything else on the plate could be smushed with the sweep of a fork. Nevertheless, we gobbled it down with nostalgic relish, savoring that simple, if bland cuisine we imagined all our forefathers to have eaten. It didn’t take long before someone announced that tubers and rib meats were all that poor farmers could afford. Then suddenly the meal became an anthropology lesson on Irish food and folkways as my family struggled to make up through intellect what it couldn’t relate to otherwise. The Irish used salt as a preservative and tea as a curative. Lamb, for most, was a delicacy and crubeens were boiled pigs feet. Much of this exotic information I retained, if for no other reason than that it sounded important. When, in third grade, the teacher asked me to name our first president and I couldn’t, I instead told her that potatoes were brought to Ireland by the Spanish in the 16th century.

After the culinary trivia, the conversation moved into the realm of Irish high-culture. I can never recall who was first to mention Yates, but it was probably an aunt who had graduated from Cornell with an English degree. As my sister and I listened, strange names like Joyce, Synge, Beckett and O’Casey sailed across the table. Much of it was academic pomp, however, because everything we knew of Ireland and the Irish came from newsbytes, college history textbooks and the romanticized imagery of Lucky Charms commercials. The facts blended with the legends and, when neither was available, gossip would do. If I wasn’t learning that Leprechauns in fact wore red, it was that the national language was ‘Irish’ and not ‘Gaelic.’ I was aware that Oscar Wilde was gay and George Bernard Shaw was a socialist long before I understood what those words meant. When the common knowledge ran out and the stereotypes were all used up, the conversation sputtered into a grand show of cultural illiteracy. Writers were misidentified (“Flannery O’Connor—wasn’t she Irish?”), sayings were butchered (“May the road rise beneath you”) and iconic works were confused (“Was ‘My Fair Lady’ made into ‘Pygmalion’ or vice versa?”). Our collective family pride was only saved when someone brought out the cake—adorned with oversized shamrocks and green candles—and together we sang happy birthday to my grandmother in accents that wouldn’t have passed for brogues in Boise.

After dinner, there was always a period of awkward quiet because no one knew what to do next. Saint Patrick’s Day had the distinction of being the one holiday that was made up as we went along. Aside from church—which by then had been abandoned by all except my grandmother—there were no other established rituals or customs. We were never quite sure whether it warranted the austerity of Easter, the revelry of July 4th or the irreverence of Halloween. All it took was for someone to mention the parade in South Boston and we all piled into the den to watch it on TV. Those who couldn’t sit knelt and those who couldn’t kneel would lean in the doorway and despite the discomfort of so many people in one room, there was relief in knowing the ceremony was on track. For whatever reason, we usually arrived as the stepdancers were going by and the sight of ringlet wigs and wildly embroidered skirts left both the women and the men captivated—although for very different reasons. Then there were bagpipers, a drum corps, baton-waving cheerleaders and several school marching bands. Situated atop the centerpiece float was Saint Patrick himself, whose vestments, mitre and staff made him look like a gregarious green Pope. As a young boy, I was most fascinated by the fire brigades and the moment I saw navy coats and bell caps, I would rush towards the screen. If the procession wasn’t interesting, the crowd always was and I knew I could spot a drunken scuffle if I looked hard enough. Sometime later, the NORAID supporters would pass and the room went silent. As liberal-minded Democrats, my family may have sympathized with the cause for Irish freedom, but it could never condone the IRA.

The drinking began at noon and never before. If there was one trait we inherited from our famously indulgent forebears, it was a passion for alcohol. For the men it was beer, for the women it was red or white wine and my grandmother only ever drank tea—something that was oddly attributed to her albinism. It didn’t take long for the adults to get tipsy and, as the noise level rose, my sister and I would sit crouched in the corner with our hands over our ears. For all its pageantry and good humor, Saint Patrick’s Day didn’t really offer much for children and by midafternoon we were bored. But my grandmother would bring out a tray of treats, fresh from the oven, and our enthusiasm was revived. Some years it was clover cupcakes; others, brownies with green sprinkles. Once she baked cookies with the Irish tricolor, but the heat had turned the orange to red and the result was an Italian flag.

If March 17th was anything it was a feast and even those who were stuffed ate more. After dessert, the combination of booze and sugar seemed to inspire the urge to sing and it always began with ‘Danny Boy’—a cliché even by American standards. Someone would hum just a few bars and instantly the whole family joined in. If the opening verse was accurate, it was hopelessly out of tune and I never understood any words after “From glen to glen and down the mountain side” because they were simply made up. Through some miracle, the song was completed and then followed by the full repertoire of Irish-American sentimental kitsch; ‘When Irish Eyes Are Smiling,’ ‘I’ll Take You Home Kathleen,’ ‘Molly Malone,’ ‘The Rising of the Moon’ and more. The noise was so dreadful all the pets scattered and even as a child, I was embarrassed enough to check that the windows were closed, lest the outside world hear. When it was finally over, everyone sat around red-faced and panting like an aria had been performed. By now the sun was starting to set and the occasional yawns of friends and relatives suggested that the festivities were at last winding down. But there was always an encore—or rather a finale—and from the corner rocker my grandmother’s soft voice would rise above the chatter. Immediately, the television was turned off, the lights were dimmed and we all faced the matriarch. Loch Lomond may have been a Scottish air (“You take the high road and I’ll take the low road”), but it was poignant enough not to matter and we listened with the solemn attention of a tribe hearing its ancestors speak.

Saint Patrick’s Day never ended, but faded into the night like a spontaneous gathering without a schedule. Whenever I awoke the next morning, the memories of the event were clear, and even fond, but the purpose of it always left me wondering. It wasn’t until years later I realized that, much like Boxing Day or Cinco De Mayo, we had been celebrating someone else’s holiday and just because we observed it didn’t mean it was relevant. What was intended as a tribute to our origins was really a parody of everything we imagined the Old Country to be but none of what it was. It was the land of Leprechauns, the Liffey and limericks; of Swift, soda bread and scally caps. After three-generations in the United States, Ireland itself was a myth that we chose to believe in one day each year and if anything was learned from the experience, it was that we were Americans after all.