To Hell With King Billy and God Bless the Pope

Wearin’ of the green with a shamrock sprig corsage
St. Patrick’s Day, Queens Village, 1974

“On with O’Donnell then, 
fight the old fight again
Sons of Tir Connell 
are valiant and true
Make the proud saxon feel 
Erin’s avenging steel
Strike for your country 
O’Donnell Abu”
    – “O Donnell Abu” (Clan Connell War Song, c. 1843)

Here’s the thing: when you’re brought up New York Irish Catholic, life doesn’t get sugar-coated.  It may get whiskey-soaked, but it sure ain’t gussied up.

When you’re raised by people who shout “Up the Republic!” at the St. Patrick’s Day parade on New York’s Fifth Avenue, who teach you the words to IRA fight songs before you start kindergarten, and who refer to Irish Protestants only as “limey proddys” and never as anything vaguely resembling Irish lineage — trust me, there’s even less sugar. You’re sugar-free outerborough Irish, plain and simple.

We had a lot to be cheesed about, us Irish. We were pretty hot-blooded to begin with, if you read about our ancient history.  We got invaded — a lot — by the Galicians, the Vikings, and the Normans, and we fought them like hell, over and over again.  Oliver Cromwell had burned Ireland’s forests and brutally overtaken Catholic rule more than 300 years earlier, and still, if his name was uttered in my Queens house, I was to sneer accordingly or make a show of faux-spitting on the ground. He was our Hitler. His armies had brought about our holocaust, the Great Famine, and I was never to forget it.

Are you ready for a war?
For we are the English.
Are you ready for a war, for we are the English soldiers.
Yes, we’re ready for a war!
For we are the Irish.
Yes, we’re ready for a war, for we are the Irish soldiers.
Now we are all dead and gone, for we are the English.
Now we are all dead and gone, for we are the English soldiers.
Now we are alive again, for we are the Irish.
Now we are alive again, for we are the Irish soldiers.” — Irish children’s verse

We Celts didn’t have true surnames until the British implemented a poll tax to run us off the land, and needed a way to keep track of us. So we took the names of our warrior ancestors, who weren’t exactly mellow people. They were the Irish equivalents of that guy Mel Gibson played, when he painted his body blue and squirmed a bit while being disemboweled in front of his entire village.

But our names weren’t even our own. They were Anglicised, hacked from their lilting Gaelic roots.  “O’Ceallaigh” became Kelly, “Mac Diarmuid” — son of Dermot, proud King of Connacht — was now McDermott, and so on. Our land, our livestock, our homes, our language — none of it was ours, any longer.

It was easier, I suppose, to define our heritage with verses of “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling” and “Danny Boy” when we’d left our homeland. But that was surface Irish, the Americanized packaging of what had preceded us, so many miles away, on still-calling shores. Our past was so much more — long lineages of chieftains and pre-Christian traditions, of literature and warriors, of sorrow and terror, of terrible beauty and four green fields.  But so many had to let it go once they left the ports of Cork and Liverpool, as steerage in steamers, if they wanted a chance at a new life.

My father’s side knew they were Irish, but they didn’t say much about it. They went about their business — many of them as NYC policemen and firefighters.  I recently found some archived articles in the now-defunct Brooklyn Daily Eagle, about my great-great-grandfather Bartholomew McKitty, or “Barney,” as he was called. He’d been written up for successful arrests and street fights both. As a child, I played with his policeman’s nightstick, which still sported the leather strap that enabled him to hold it tight for defense or let it dance on his palm, to the delight of his children.

My mother’s people knew where they came from. We had an immigrant among us — my great-grandfather Eddie Morris — who had left Ireland at age 20 and was very proud of his homeland. He often shared his stories with his daugther and grandchildren, and even for a few short years with me, the one great-grandchild he lived long enough to see. It was he who had given my grandparents directions to our ancestors’ graveyard in his small village of Plumbridge, County Tyrone, even though he hadn’t been back to Ireland since he’d left at the turn of the century, and who gave us the chance to stand among the weathered, worn headstones and know who we were. He was my link to that island, so far and yet so near, as I bounced as a toddler on his knee to the verse:

“Up the airy mountain and down the rushing glen
We daren’t go a-hunting for fear of little men
Wee folk, good folk
Trooping all together
Green jacket, red cap
And white owl’s feather”

The warrior blood still runs strong in so many of us, even if the facts and dates of our history are lost to faded memory, burned record books, and mere time. Over the summer, I was with one of my cousins, retired NYPD and 60, talking about another relative who had just passed the same milestone.  Several of my male relations had taken the birthday boy out for a celebration, and things had gotten a bit rowdy. “What happened?” I stupidly asked. My cousin answered, “He started shooting his mouth off, so we had to take him outside and set him straight.” Still, at 60, this was the way to settle things. And as a 40 year-old woman, I knew what “setting him straight” meant.  Strange to say, it repelled me and comforted me all at once, because I knew the language so well.

I grew up singing about tommy guns and men dying in fields at the hands of British soldiers, of wakes and drunks, of women who stuck knives in “babbies” heads, and of bitter old widows who cheated their greedy son-in-laws out of horses and sacks of flour. I sang them loudly and slapped my knee in time to the music, as I did to children’s songs.

“Up the Republic, they raise their battle cry
Pearse and McDermott will pray for you on high
Eager and ready, for love of you they die
Proud march the Soldiers of the Rearguard

Legion of the rearguard, answering Ireland’s call
Hark, the march and tramp is heard from Cork to Donegal
Wolfe Tone and Emmett guide you, though your task be hard
DeValera leads you, Soldiers of the Legion of the Rearguard” 
   — “Legion of the Rearguard”, IRA fight song, Jack O’Sheehan, c. 1923

As a kid, I once asked my mother what “The Red Hand of Ulster” was. I had already been schooled in the history of northern Ireland, since my great-grandfather had come from County Tyrone. As I recall, my mother said something along the lines of — “There were two chieftains wishing to be king of Ulster.  They raced each other on horseback to see who would win. The losing man cut his hand off with his sword and threw it far so he could say he’d gotten there first. And his blood-red hand serves as the symbol of the determination of the oppressed Irish Catholics in northern Ireland. Now finish your breakfast.”

If a six year-old kid asks someone why a flag has a bloody-red hand in the center of it, chances are you don’t go into gory detail. But not in my house. No, sir. Especially when it gave someone an opportunity to demonstrate the centuries of oppression and torment that my ancestors knew. To be honest, it did the trick.  It instilled in me that this was my past — not just the fighting and the drinking, but the instinct to survive, to persevere, to thrive in the face of hopelessness. I don’t want to sound like Charlie Sheen and his vatican warlock assassins, but there is warrior in me, even when I’d like to think there isn’t.

So when St. Patrick’s Day came around, there was no “begosh and begorra” for me as a child. No shamrock stickers on my cheek. Far from it. Out came the scratchy kilts, the Aran cardigans, the Claddagh brooch pinning the shamrock sprig to my coat lapel. I waited anxiously for the Fighting 69th Regiment and the proud wolfhounds to signal the start of the parade. I looked for my cousins’ faces in the FDNY Pipes and Drums, and I watched my mother dance in the living room when she thought she was alone, stepping in time to the strains of the bagpipes. We’d been kicked around by invaders, by being “dirty Irish” when we arrived in Amer-ee-kay, and by other ethnic groups who rightfully shamed our bad habits in shared tenement conditions. But still, we survived. We held on. We built cities like New York and Boston and Chicago alongside other proud immigrant groups. We wove ourselves into America’s tapestry.

The cruelest irony, of course, is that in many ways, Irish-Americans have “become more Irish than the Irish themselves.”  At 13, I traveled with my parents on a harried, two-week tour of Ireland. We went south and north — under the watchful eye of automatic rifles as we passed the UK border.  While visiting the Gaeltacht — a section of northwest Ireland that still speaks the ancient language of Gaelic — we heard the one word that wasn’t foreign to us — “Yank” — as a group of teenagers passed by. As the chasm widens, how Irish are we still? Why does the plight of poor Catholics in Belfast still stir such feeling in our hearts, even among those who’ve never set foot on Irish soil?

I can’t say.  But I am charged with following the thread and passing it to my children. Today, as I prepare for St. Patrick’s Day celebrations with my two kids — half-Irish and half-Jewish and rich in oppressed, proud heritages — I know the value of educating this newest generation. I can teach the past, without passing on anger and hatred.  But I can also see how the thread is fraying for that very same reason.

In reaping the benefits of our ancestors’ struggles, my husband and I have not imparted the hunger — for lack of a better word — to our children. They are Irish, Polish, Catholic and Jewish in name and on paper. But they’re all-American — for good and for bad. They’ll wear green on St. Patrick’s Day, and this might be the year I finally take them into Manhattan to see the parade in person. But they won’t feel the swell in their hearts the way I do when the pipers whine out “O’Donnell Abu” in formation down the green painted line. And they won’t know what the velvet banners spelling out CORK and DONEGAL, CAVAN and TIPPERARY mean to the people who march behind them. They’ll never know the shivery feeling of standing in a Irish Republican bar in San Francisco, as Bobby Sands’ widow brushes past them, and others nearby whisper her name so you let her pass, in quiet reverence.

Someplace within me quite visceral, I had believed that letting go of the anger meant letting go of them — the generations who fought so hard for the place I hold now. But my children don’t know the IRA fight songs by heart. They want for almost nothing, I’m embarrassed to say, and have thankfully been raised without the knowledge of racism and intolerance that was so shamefully prevalent only one generation ago. They can only blame themselves, and no longer an oppressor, for their misfortunes.

Which is, in truth, the very freedom my ancestors fought for, so many generations ago.  We are their long-dormant dream.  The Red Hand still flies, albeit in Bergen County, as my children form their own destinies.

But if my kids ever ask me what The Red Hand means, I’ll come up with something much less disgusting.

Erin go bragh and slainte!

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