Learning the Irish Language, Three-Thousand Miles from the Gaeltacht

Irish lessons from my maternal great-grandfatherUp the airy mountain / down the rushy glen / we daren’t go a-hunting / for fear of little men. If you smell sweet flowers in the house, then someone has passed over to the other side. An Irish farmboy can till Queens soil, and can grow rhubarb in the narrowest strip of earth cut from a cemented backyard. Your distant cousin was the original proprietor of McSorley’s Ale House. Don’t set foot in it. Keep a block of peat near your hearth. Not to burn, but to know that the homeland is always within reach.

Irish lessons from my maternal grandmother: We only drink Irish coffee after Sunday dinner. The Irish didn’t eat corned beef. The Irish-AMERICANS ate it here in the US because it was a cheap, stringy cut of meat and they were poor immigrants—and because it was cured, so it kept in their tins while they toiled all day digging tunnels and building railroads for this country. Remember that when you take a bite. Your family is from the north. You carry the Red Hand of Ulster. You are part Viking, because you are blue-eyed like your father. So mind your temper. You have people from the Sperrin Mountains in your lineage, so you can be wild. Mind that as well. Plan your funeral now, because no one is promised anything in this life–and because you’ll want to choose the hymns for yourself.

Irish lessons from my maternal grandfather:  When you die, be buried in a plain pine box like a soldier, like the boys from home. What you have been given can so easily be taken away, so don’t squander it. My mother said her people weren’t Johnny-come-latelys. They were lace-curtain, not shanty. This soda bread recipe isn’t from our ancestors. It’s from Woman’s Day.

Irish lessons from my paternal grandfather: Horse racing is in your blood, but the OTB is no place for a lady. Never tell them that you’re part Italian. Just tell them you’re French. Shine your shoes and wear a suit whenever possible. You may have hailed from wildness and fury and sorrow, but you can choose to live outside of it, and adjacent to it. You will see my ghost in Hell’s Kitchen whenever you walk there.

Irish lessons from my paternal grandmother: It’s a sin to say the rosary during mass. Meat should be gray. Never pink. Grudges can–and should–be lifelong. Don’t take a drop of the drink; it ruined my sister. Light a candle for me whenever you’re at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and genuflect before you leave.

Irish lessons from my father: Drunk people on New Year’s Eve and St. Patrick’s Day are amateurs. People who drink green beer are idiots. Always look for the Fighting 69th and the wolfhounds at the start of the parade. Spit on the ground whenever you hear the name Cromwell. “The Wind That Shakes the Barley” is the saddest song ever written, so sad it can never be sung. Instead, pour two fingers of whisky neat, sit quiet in the dark, and just listen.

Irish lessons from my mother: Your ancestors endured pillaging, slavery, oppression, starvation, poverty, wrongful imprisonment and execution. Their native language was ripped from their tongue, their culture ripped from their bones, their faith and rituals banished from their homes. And not so you can paint your face green and wear a “Kiss Me I’m Irish” pin, missy. So be proud. But not too proud. Listen to the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem. You are pagan, gypsy, ancient, wise, witchy. You inherently know bonfires and harvests and fields, and there are bits of thatch in your marrow–even though you are a city kid with dirt smudges and skinned knees and nothing more than sticks and Spaldeens for your pleasure. Don’t get in a car with a boy you don’t know. Always wear a slip. Only trust Irish butchers.

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  1. I love this so much, Kathleen. You should send it out beyond your blog. It’s literature and character and history! The collected wisdom is hilarious and heartbreaking and it all adds up to something bigger. Ignore my Spanish married name. My first name was Patricia Broderick (my brother is Patrick—it’s complicated.) Anyway, I was never able to meet my paternal grandfather, where all my Irish comes from, so I’ll take this wisdom from your people. <3 Happy St. Pat’s.

  2. Moira Greto says:

    What an absolute treat, Kathleen. You must have kissed the Blarney Stone a thousand times, you have such a way with words! You never fail to make me laugh, smile, cry, but in particular when you speak of the ‘aul sod. Slainte! xo

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