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Visited the sister and her family in DC last week. Thought I could stick it out on campus and get ahead of the work load for once, but a few days in, I found myself seeking the last one-way rental car out town, braving the public bus to Bellefonte, and getting the hellllll out of here.

It’s strange that I can go to my sister’s and mindlessly play, watch Sponge Bob, and wrestle with the dog for hours on end, but am completely unable to do so in my own apartment. Most of the week was spent on Molly, or Hurricane Molly as we often call her, at six-years-old she is teaching herself to read and driving her mother crazy.

Of course that craziness was transferred to me before I could even get in a morning cup of coffee. Molly is there, in front of the coffee pot, demanding to show me the latest book she learned to navigate. The afternoon consisted of at least a half hour of Molly insisting on flipping through flash-cards and getting mad at me when she could not sound out certain words correctly. She yelled at me that I was “changing the rules” because she could not figure out when to use a hard or soft “th” sound. I realized for the first time how damn hard it must be for foreigners to learn English.

Every night with Molly was a negotiation of how many books I would read in accordance to how long I could get her to brush her teeth. I’m not her mother, I’m not opposed to bribes. We settled on a short book that she would read and two longer books that I would read. Normally Dr. Seuss, she thinks it’s hilarious the way I fly through the books (she doesn’t realize I have them mostly memorized).

We’re all pretty clueless where Molly has gotten this drive to read. She ferocious about it, really. She is quick to learn and beats herself up over her mistakes. This is odd for a kindergartener whose own class is just learning their ABCs.

My sister is trying to reel her in and I’m ambivalent about the process. We’re first generation Americans. Our grandfather lived during a time in Ireland when the idea of just a proper education, forget a higher one, was a pipe dream for many. My great-grandfather, after the laws changed allowed advanced degrees for the Irish, went on to write a mathematical textbook and a history of Ireland, his brother translated Alice in Wonderland into Gaelic and was published (previously against the law in the country), and my grandfather became an engineer. All spoke more than 9 languages between them.

Education was a treasure, an honor, a gift, and a duty if you had the least bit of access to it. I’m loathed to read school work over spring break, but my niece is determined to read anything she can get her hands on, including the National Geographic where she only picked out a few words. A hundred years ago, a flash in the pan of time really, was a whole other world for the Irish, one of neglect, denial, and state mandated ignorance. So I suppose if Molly wants to read the contents of the known universe, we should let her be, and be thankful for it. She certainly comes by it honestly.

I’m not one to wear green on St. Patrick’s Day. I mean, come on, I’m a pale red head, green colored clothing would make me look like the freakin’ flag of Ireland. I am, however, wearing my favorite t-shirt:

“Psycho Irish Bitch from Hell”

It was gifted to me from a person who tried to present it as a joke, but I’m sure was quite serious about the message.

And yet, I still wear it. Mostly, because I find it amusing. Amusing that in this day and age someone would use a traditional European ethnic slur. In a country where jokes about persons of Middle Eastern or Arabic descent seem to rule the day, I enjoy the fact that I can be targeted for being the typical Mick.

Shanty Irish if you will.

Think of all the slurs that used to float about like so much confetti: Pommies, Frogs, Polocks, Krauts, Wops, Deigos, Hebes, Chinks, Japs, Reds, Spics…I’m sure there’s more, I just can’t think of them now.

Americans forget that when our ancestors came to this country, we clustered together in the ethnic bound neighborhoods of our motherlands. Sure, everyone loves the Irish now, but at the the turn of the 20th century, being a Papist Potato Eater was only slightly more palatable than being a leper.

And when Kennedy, an Irish Catholic, was elected President, a mere fifty years ago, many were fairly convinced the world was going to end.

What a difference a century makes.

So I’m off to school. The first of my family to have actually graduated college. I may go out for a drink later, or I may stay home and skip this American invention altogether.

I have a crap load of homework to do after all.

I say, there’s precious few things funnier in this world than my mother, overseas, drunk, and leaving rambling messages on my phone. Mummy is over on the Old Sod visiting the cousins and it seems like all they do over there is tie one on night after night, or maybe it’s actually continuous, I wouldn’t put it past them. Anyhoo-the result is that I am the receiver of Mother’s Jameson-fueled capitulations at the local drinking establishment in Western Cork, provided at length, in the Irish brogue that only comes out of hiding when she’s angry or drinking…heavily.

What makes it all the more hysterical is that my mom has never really quite grasped the concept of voicemail. Oh, she knows what it is, it’s just that she assumes everyone owns the same late 1980’s style answering machine she owns and further assumes everyone is secretly screening their phone calls…like she does, from behind the furniture apparently.

I present to you my mother, brought to you by Jameson Irish Whiskey (12 year, knowing her):

Yesterday’s Message:

“(my name)! It’s yer ma! Pick up da phone! Don’t tink I don’t know you’re there. Hidin. Behind the couch not answering this phone! Pick up! I picked me luggage to move it tah-cross the room yesterday and hurt me back sumin awful. I’m calling the docter after I get you to pick up the phone. Pick up! Talk to yer mudder! Saw the lovely stone tombs in the west county today. Musta hurt the poor old dears backs as well. A course, they didn’t have doctors. Or whiskey. How in ta world did man become civilized wit-out whiskey? Probably prayed the pain to go away like they prayed for 800 damn years for the English to get out. Of course, we Irish finally realized that God helps those who help tem-selves and set about extracting ’em from the premises. Good stuff that. Damn English! Okay, well, I’m hanging up. You can come out from behind the couch. Tell (Sailor) his old mudder in law sends her love. Watch yer back and lift with yer legs. All righty, bye.”

Mother is over there for another week, so by my calculations I have about another 6 or 7 of these phone calls coming to me.

I’m applying for my Irish passport and retrieved the necessary documentation from my Aunt Mary over the holiday in Detroit. Along with the documents, I was given some very precious treasure: letters from my great-grandfather in Ireland written to my grandfather who had fled emigrated to Detroit during the Irish Civil War. More on that another time.

I love these letters and have been obsessively reading them over and over. The writing is breathlessly beautiful. Nib and ink in a hand that knew how to write and write well. My great-grandfather was a national school teacher in Ireland and spoke 7 languages, so it doesn’t surprise me to see these letters with their gorgeous script and thoughtful structure. I can’t help read them and not hear an Irish brogue inside my head as I do:

Crehana, 16, April 1939

“My Dear Jim,

It is almost time for me to reply to your kind and consoling letter on the death of your poor mother. R.I.P. The sudden stroke of paralysis to which she succumbed without regaining consciousness knocked us all out completely. She always enjoyed robust health and was rigorously working even just before being struck down. We have scarcely yet recovered from the effect of the shock.

On reflection, however, the case could be worse. She was always prepared, having led almost the daily life of a saint. She now enjoys the reward of a life devoted to prayer and religious exercises. Had her life been prolonged she would be always an invalid and would suffer martyrdom for one who had always been so industrious and active. So, I suppose, God knew what was best.

In you next letter kindly give me full particulars about your work. I used to get an American newspaper long ago and remember the articles were very spicy and interesting. Perhaps you could send me one from time to time.

I am keeping in very good form thank God. I keep always engaged, reading, walking or gardening-always in the open air. I may possibly, at some future time, take a trip to the States to see you all. Kindly remember me to any of my old pupils who may live around there. We are very happy here on the side of Carrickbeg Hill, in view of the old school, and actually saturated with sunshine and good air.

I will now conclude by thanking you for all the pains and expense that you have taken for the benefit of the poor mother’s soul. Hoping Mrs. and family are in the pink and with best regards to all.

I remain, as ever,

Your loving father, L.K.”

So how strange is it that one could feel so deeply the loss of a person they never met?