Confessions of a Shanty Irishman
by Michael Corrigan
Grandfather exclaimed, "Dermot MacMurroughthere's a black Irish name for ya. Dermot stole King O' Rourke's bride. Not only the girl but her dowrycows, pigs! And when O'Rourke, Irish warrior that he was, took her back, Dermot the coward got help from the Norman French King of EnglandHenry II. Dermot was the first man to bring Anglo Norman invaders to our shores. Wasn't long before King Henry decided he was king of Ireland. It started then, my boy. Eight centuries of English rule!"
"Was she pretty?"
"The bride? Of course, lad! No Irishman worth his salt would fight over an ugly woman. Dermot stole her right outta O'Rourke's castle."
"What was her name?"
Grandfather's eyes grew soft.
"Dervorgilla. A lovely lass, prettier than that Greek, Helen of Troy. With Henry came Welsh troops called Geraldines, and the man known as Strongbow who had his eye on another pretty Irish lass. Oh, they were keen on cutting up parcels of land for themselves. They plundered, pillaged, drank Irish whiskey. They were after having a high old time."
I tried to imagine tough soldiers called "Geraldines."
"Grandfather, why were the Welsh called"
"Their motherand she popped out a lot of sonswas married to Gerald of Windsor. Before Henry, most invaders became more Irish than the Irish. Even the Vikings."
Arms behind his back, the old man paced beneath the wall mirror. "Long before I left the country for good, there was the death of Parnell, a good Protestant for home rule but betrayed by slandering priests."
He seemed to catch himself.
"Don't you ever call them that. Most priests are good people. We need the Holy Mother Church."
Grandfather's face was moon-shaped and smooth, with pale blue eyes and wisps of white hair along the sides of his bald head. Grandfather always wore his hat, except in the house. "You come from Irish kings, boy. Too bad there were so many of them. They were always after fightin' each other instead of the English."
"When did you leave Ireland, Granddad?"
"Michael, me boy, how do I remember? Sometime after the second famine, that's for sure. Met your grandmother, Agnes, and here we are. After the 1906 earthquake, who do you think paved the streets of San Francisco-Meself."
"Were you born near any castles?"
"A haunted castle in Roscommon-under a Celtic midnight moon. The castle was built by Baylor of the Evil Eyeno, it was Brian Boru who drove out the Vikings but couldn't unite the Irish clans against Brits." He fished in his sweater vest. "It's an old, sad story. We are our own worst enemies." He found a cigarette. "When I come back in, I'll read the funnies to ya." Grandfather went outside to smoke.
We lived in a house with blue-colored front stairs facing the green hills of Dolores Park. There was a fuchsia bush by the stairs with red and white ballerina flowers dancing on the wind; they survived the San Francisco winters, though some argued the summers were just as cold. White fog encircled the Mission district.
Later, I read in an Irish history book that Dermot died shortly after King Henry conquered Dermot's enemies and made proud Irish chieftains swear allegiance to England. Of course, when Henry sailed away, all bets were off. Strongbow got the woman he craved, a castle and some land. There were no pictures of Dervorgilla. Did she have blonde hair and blue eyes like Helen of Troy? Did Dermot free her from a tower and ride off on a white horse? Strongbow. What would they have called me? Michael, King of Feebs?
Early memories contain many childhood images: a blonde woman in a red model A, an open rumble seat in the back, the wind blowing across my face; a summer camp for young children; my grandparents taking me in with Mother mysteriously gone; a snapshot of a two-year-old on a grassy hill; Father returning from World War II dressed in Navy blues, waving to me as I stand atop a slide, waiting to sail down; Agnes the gentle grandmother, wearing an apron; Thomas Sr., the grandfather, wearing workman's trousers with red noserag, thick-soled brogans, work shirt, sweater vest, and hat. We lived in that house: myself, my father, my grandparents, and a mysterious aunt called Vee for Veronica. She had poor teeth and brown hair. We listened to radio in the early days, Tarzan or The Lone Ranger. I loved voices and the scenes they conjured. Even the names suggested mystery and adventure: the Whistler, the Shadow, the Phantom, Red Ryder and Boston Blackie.
We were one of the first families to buy a television with its tiny screen: Milton Berle in drag for his comedy hour, Tonto and The Lone Ranger riding again and Duncan Renaldo as the Cisco Kid. "Television is a wonderful invention," Mr. Dooley said. He had always seemed old, a small bald man who sat by his window all night watching the park. "I'm never lonely," he told Father. "I've always got someone in the room with me. The comedy shows. Dennis Day singing 'Danny Boy.' Lovely."
"I like Jackie Gleason," Father said. "His TV family's louder than mine."
"Television is a wonderful invention," Mr. Dooley continued. "Oh, I still watch the park. If anything happens, I'll see it." A shout always announced dinner. One late afternoon, I turned off the television as a king named Claudius screamed for some light and Hamlet, a blond prince in black tights, stuck a torch in his face. "For the love of Mike," Grandfather said, "I heard screaming. What are you after watching? Cartoons?"
"A weird movie. Hamlet."
"Eat," Father said.
I looked at him. "What happens to Hamlet in the end?"
"He's eight and he's asking me about Hamlet? Ask me tomorrow."
"Why is he wearing tights?"
"For the love of six bits, don't ask," Grandfather said. "We had a few of thoseeven in Ireland."
"A few of what?"
"I'll read the play," Father said.
That night, my father thumbed through the collected works of the Bard in an old gray book. "Hamlet kills the king in the end, then he dies," he finally said. The thick player's edition of Shakespeare's works remained on a shelf, and I would take it down and stare at the pictures of famous actors in various celebrated roles. The costumes were elegant. The exotic language held coded secrets: Burn but his books, for they hold magic.
Twenty years later, I finally saw the Olivier film. Every five years, Olivier appeared in some major film or television appearance, an artistic marker for the passing years.
Lady From Shanghai was playing at the local movie house. At the end of the film, Orson Welles walked past San Francisco's Playland at the Beach after a surreal shoot-out in the funhouse. He crossed the streetcar tracks and walked toward the Pacific Ocean. Playland was a wonderful amusement park that lasted for over thirty years. As a child, I rode the roller coaster or stared at the huge clown-like "laughing lady," mechanically shrieking inside her glass cage since 1940. When Playland was torn down, they moved "Laughing Sal" to a small museum near the famous Cliff House. Sal seemed smaller, less threatening. A crater where Playland stood filled with rainwater until luxury apartments replaced the ruins.
The politics of the house were simple: we were born democrat, baptized Catholic a week later. There were two kinds of people: Irish Catholics and the ones who wished they were Irish Catholics. Alcohol was a sacrament. Uncle Emmett took me on my first day to Mission Dolores Grammar School run by nuns. We passed a statue of the Virgin Mary. There was the big church and a small adobe California mission from 1776. Behind the mission was a graveyard.
On rainy days, Grandfather arrived at school wearing a sweater vest, workman's clothes, hat, and holding an umbrella. We walked eight blocks through sheets of rain, past the green spacious park toward the house. Some nights, we watched the streetcars go under the bridge, throwing light over the rocks and broken glass. Grandfather disliked small talk, but often recited nursery rhymes and sang about a "dirty old Mick" who put overalls in Mrs. Murphy's chowder.
Vee haunts my memory, though her private life and work remained a mystery; it was Vee who took me to the store on Fridays for a paper and a Tootsie Roll, which I called a "Tootis Roll." The news vender on Mission Street was a short hunchback with crippled legs. He and Father had grown up together. Father came home from the post office and sat down to read his paper before dinner. He fumed about what evil the Republicans had recently done; his conversations often included Eleanor Roosevelt. She was the Joan of Arc of America, if an older woman.
"God, that Eleanor witch is ugly," another newsman on the corner of 18th and Castro said one night as Father paid for the paper. We drove off.
"You'll be ugly at that age," he muttered. "Your mother oughta be arrested."
That many considered Eleanor ugly only confirmed her strength and power to do the impossible. The fact she fought for blacks did not make her threatening. San Francisco blacks lived in the Fillmore District, not next door.
Grandfather also read the paper and told Agnes every night about the latest adventures of General Pickax. It seemed General Pickax was invading countries across Europe: France, Italy, England, and even Russia and countries with difficult names. Sometimes General Pickax made scientific discoveries, and even composed classical music. How could General Pickax be in so many places?
"He uses that name for any one he can't pronounce," Agnes said quietly.
Grandfather left me with a rugged image, but the nurturing image is that of Agnes. She glows and fades in my memory like an image from an old photo. Incidents are remembered, but not the heat that went with them.
There is a surviving photograph taken when I was about one year old. Father holds a toddler in the back yard while the two old folks gaze into a light now lost, the look in Agnes' eyes so like that of my father, his two brothers and two sisters.
As a child, I imagined Agnes traveled by train across America with her sister, Kate, following another sister and a brother, Pete, who settled in Montana; the two sisters landed in San Francisco early in the new century. A fourth sister, Minnie, settled in Sacramento, though her history remained typically unclear. Did Kate and Agnes come over on a crowded boat, like the ones that brought Irish indentured servants to the New World? Who sponsored them? How much money did they bring? Leaving no journals, it's buried on some ship's list along with the livestock and other cargo.
What personal history Agnes had remained private, her rare disapproval always tempered with a smile or a simple nod. Agnes cooked meals; Agnes washed clothes; Agnes wore baggy flower dresses and an apron; Agnes had a soft voice, always evading questions, never giving opinions; Agnes remained invisible while running a complex house. Anonymous, her name appears on no Ellis Island record.
The basement of the old house facing the park contained a history of the family and the five children who had lived there a generation before. Sunlight glowed in the single window. The three boys went to war and returned, leaving two rifles to hang on the wall, an Italian bolt-action war rifle with a crooked sight, and a Japanese Arasaka rifle with a chrome bore. I stared at them in fascination, waiting for the day I was old enough to shoot them, wondering if they would explode in my face. The Japanese Arasaka was wicked looking, with a short stock and a strong recoil. The Italian Carcano rifle later gained fame as the model used to assassinate John F. Kennedy, a hero and martyr to San Francisco Irish. The boys had fought in the Pacific. Who brought home the Italian rifle?
In the basement sat an old-fashioned washing machine with a dangerous pair of rollers for wringing and squeezing wet clothes. Similar rollers had already crushed and broken the fingers and arms of numerous children; I fulfilled a tradition at six by reaching up and slipping my fingers into the turning rollers, catching them on the wet cloth, pulling back, feeling the sudden pressure and tug on my left arm as I was caught, then lifted and pulled up against the loud shaking machine.
I cried out, unable to reach and turn off the switch on the other side of the round dryer. My hand was moving between the turning rollers, the clothes providing more deadly traction and pressure when Agnes walked in and calmly put the machine in reverse. Slowly, the rollers turned backwards, pushing my blue fingers out of the crushing grip.
Agnes put my hand in a bucket of cold water, then hung up the clothes on the line.
Seven was the age of reason, the time when awareness of sin began. The altar boys were dressed in red and white gowns. After singing "Lord, I am not Worthy," the assembled sweet-faced boys marched toward the altar to receive their first Holy Communion. The night before, each boy confessed his sins in a small box called a confessional, a priest inside. A white crucifix glowed over the dark square. The priest's profile was visible through the screen when he pulled open the slide.
"Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. This is my first confession."
"And what sins do you have to confess, my child?"
That was a tough question. What sins could a seven-year-old recite?
"I stole some comic books from the hunchback on Mission Street. Maybe I lied about it." " Anything else, my son?"
"No, Father." " Say five Hail Marys and five Our Fathers and sin no more. Be careful of bad companions. And you'd be better off reading something of depth, like the lectures of Bishop Sheen."
"I will. FatherI think I want to be a priest."
"Good boy, lad." At the urging of Sister Helen Clare who taught the third grade, I had already sent away for literature about joining the priesthood, and enjoyed receiving thick envelopes with information. The drama of the Mass arrived when the priest lifted the white host in his hands and called down the Redeemer. Father was proud when I knelt and received the body and blood of Christ for the first time. The priest continued down the line of kneeling boys, mouths open, tongues extended. I could taste the thin wafer but didn't feel different with God inside me. We took pictures outside the church and had a big dinner at home. Everyone drank and ate. Father snapped a photo while Agnes sat on a couch, smiling at the camera. It was indeed a happy day. All those boys had been washed clean in the blood of the Lamb. The day after Communion, I went back to the hunchback vender and bought the new Superman.
By the time I turned eight, I could see over the top of the bridge looking down on the train tracks for the green J streetcar that rolled up through Dolores Park along Church Street, stopping under the bridge between 18th and 20th Streets. When I was six, Grandfather had lifted me with callused hands as light from the streetcar caught the sparkling glass and rocks between the rails. A glow burned from two street lamps on either side of the car stops, shadowed steps ascending to Church Street.
"What's Ireland like?" I asked on one of our nocturnal walks. To my surprise, he answered my question.
"There's a bridge near my Lisacul house with a stream under it. The hills in the park remind me of home, but we had rocks on the hills, no palm trees. My father and mother, John and Marysaints, both of them-raised me and a twin brother, plus another brother namedbut that's not important. There was a sister, as well. Twin brother John stayed behind and farmed the land."
"An identical twin?"
"Good God, you don't think he'd make two ugly Micks identical, do you?" Grandfather lit a cigarette and took a few puffs. "At twenty, I took a steamer out of Queenstown in Cork. It was the last stop before the Atlantic and America."
'Cork' sounded like 'Cark.' I asked: "Will you ever go back?"
"No," he said. "What for? I'm not a farmer. I tried to run a store, but who could buy? That life is gone." He frowned. "Like the British Tans, you're after asking too many questions, lad."
He lifted his Irish shillelagh, a hard wooden stick with a round polished knob on the end. It was thick and heavy to the touch. Grandfather stared down the tracks.
"I left because of no work and troubles with the English. Got here
in time for the '06 earthquake. And who gave the celebrated tenor, Enrico Caruso, a ride in a horse-drawn cart to the Ferry Building before all Market Street went up in smoke? I did! A fire burned half the town.
A truck overturned and I got hit by exploding cans of hot fruit. I heard some starving people later ate the horse. Caruso sailed back to Italy and I became a citizen the year the Titanic went down1912. How many immigrants drowned that night?"
A rock sailed up out of the darkness and shattered the glass around the street lamp. Grandfather looked down. Another rock was thrown at the lamp, but it missed the globe.
"What do you think you're doing, young man? Putting us all in darkness? I worked for the city!"
There was a muffled shout from below. " Who's that, Grandfather?" "Two men who want to rob the trolley." He leaned over the edge. "Two things will happen, tonight. I'll knock you both out with this," he said, holding the cudgel. "Then break your necks. You better skedaddle."
"Go away, old man," came a voice from the darkness below.
"I'll warn the passengers inside. They're after working."
"Oh yeah? You better run, pop."
"I can't run." He leaned down close to me. "Run home and tell your dad to call the bulls. I'll take care of these hooligans."
I ran along the path toward the house, running past a small pepper tree that resembled a miniature weeping willow, running stumbling up the stairs into the house. Father put down his newspaper. "Jesus, what happened? Where's your granddad?"
"Some men are holding up the trolley. He wants to fight them!"
Then we piled in the old Plymouth, driving down Church Street toward the small bridge. We saw a J car stop at 20th street. Had it been robbed? Father parked the car on a hill, the lights blinking, and ran to the darkened bridge. Grandfather stood alone, smoking, watching for the next streetcar. "They ran off," he said. "Cowards!" Agnes waited at home. " There was no danger, Agnes. None."
Without a word, she punched him.
The entire clan gathered for Christmas dinner every year, including Father's brother, Emmett, and Pete Kennedy, the brother from Montana, a large man with light blue eyes, white hair, and full lips. The Christmas tree glowed with lights, most of them white where the color had rubbed off over the years since buying new lights seemed extravagant. A pot-bellied stove made crackling fire sounds, warming the kitchen. The long table was set with the best china, silverware, a turkey cooking in the oven. I anticipated the plum pudding desert. Emmett, who had lost his hair early, sat with his wife, rumored to be a Protestant. Her name was Shirley, and she had a pleasant smile, accompanied by an occasional giggle. Thomas Sr. and Junior stood before the mantle beneath a huge mirror, drinking whiskey. Aunt Kate in fierce black sat on the sofa, drinking tea, her gaunt face pale and pinched. She clucked her tongue when any remark displeased her. Aunt Kate struggled to be cheerful, even when brother Pete made crude jokes. Christmas was the one time Agnes gave orders.
"Remember, this is the birthday of Our Lord. No talk about politics or religion."
"Of course. You should've heard the sermon today," said Father. "Warning us about a Swedish art film."
"I don't want to miss it," said Emmett with a wink. "I guess there's a lot of female nudity."
"For God's sake," said Kate, shocked. "Today is Christmas."
"I don't like films," Grandfather said, wearing his sweater vest. He said 'fillems' for 'films.' "But should the church be after telling us what movies to see?"
Aunt Kate sipped her tea. Uncle Pete spoke up: "In Montana, the priests tell us how to vote."
"That violates separation of church and state," said Emmett, cupping his wine in one hand. "They have a right to warn us," said Kate. "It's their mission in life. Never disagree with our priests. Never!"
"The vote's no problem here," said Grandfather. "The Irish are taking over San Francisco. The Jews own it, the Irish run it. When I first came, all I saw were signs saying, 'Irish need not apply.' That's changed, at least."
"We got some Dagos running for office," Father said.
He had a deep melodic voice and a handsome face, with thick black hair combed back above chiseled features. Agnes announced that dinner would be served in a jiffy.
"I'd like to see that film before I go back," said Uncle Pete. "I haven't seen a nude woman since the last copy of the National Geographic, and she was an African native, a blue! Big lips, and bigger"
"For goodness sakes," admonished Aunt Kate.
"Be careful," said Grandfather. He motioned. "The boy."
"He should know about naked girls by now," said Uncle Pete. "Of course, in Ireland, we don't see naked women until after marriage, and sometimes, not even after that."
"You're too busy sitting in a bar," Father said, smiling.
"Where else?" admitted Uncle Pete.
"This is disgraceful," said Aunt Kate. "Today of all days!"
"In this Swede film, I understand the man is also hanging out, buck naked," said Father. "Imagine that."
There was a moment of shocked silence. I tried to imagine this mysterious "art" film where men and women disrobed in front of a camera and crew.
"I'm not that liberal," said Uncle Pete.
Father nodded in agreement.
"A nude women is very beautiful," said Emmett. "Why not film her naked beauty if it fits the story?"
"Sure," agreed Father, "but a naked man is a bit much, wouldn't you say? He can't look anything but a fool with his pants down." "Oh my God," sputtered Aunt Kate. "I'm after helping Agnes. I can't hear this talk on Christmas, and from good Catholics, too!" "We must be kind to Aunt Kate," said Grandfather, lifting his glass. "She's all alone, a spinster, and the blues are after moving into her neighborhood."
"To Sister Kate," said Uncle Pete, lifting his glass in a toast. "A sister of Ireland lost among the blues."
"Why do you call them 'blues'?"
They looked at me. "It's better than jig or coon," Father said. "Or the 'N' word. Some of them are so black they are blue."
"I think 'Negro' is the proper term," said Emmett. "God knows, they've suffered discrimination."
"'Irish need not apply,'" Grandfather said. "I remember reading that all over town. I know all about discrimination."
"But we're white, like the Italians and others in power," said Emmett. "We can even change our names to get a job."
"What Irishman would change his name?" demanded Father. "A Jew might change his name, but never an Irishman."
I felt suddenly bold. "A black can't change the color of his skin."
Grandfather frowned. "For God's sake, son, your boy is after speaking out of turn. I think he's forgetting himself."
Father finished his drink. "Maybe I gave him too much whiskey for an appetizer. By the way, I'm famished."
Agnes entered the room and spoke: "Dinner's on."
Aunt Kate said grace before meals in her high, trembling voice.
Then dinner was served, the huge turkey sitting on a metal tray, the guests waiting as Father carved it up.
"White meat? Dark meat?"
"I'll take a little bit of both," Uncle Pete said.
The gravy boat was passed around. " Bishop Sheen was so beautiful on television last week," said Aunt Kate. Her faded blue eyes behind the thick glasses were moist with tears. "He spoke about the tragedy of our times, the losing of one's faith."
"Yes," said Father, winking at Emmett. "Life Is Worth Living. Good show. Go back to your blackboard, Bishop. Tune up the choir." Aunt Kate put down her fork.
"Don't be disrespectful," warned Agnes.
Father held up a piece of meat on his fork.
"Delicious," he said. "The Pope's nose." He looked at Aunt Kate.
"Oh, we all love Bishop Sheen, Aunt Kate. Even Protestants, I hear."
"Of course. Everyone watches Bishop Sheen," insisted Aunt Kate.
"Even the Jews, the Christ Killers. Even them."
"Dad, sing a few bars of 'Who Put The Overalls In Mrs. Murphy's Chowder?'"
"It's a grand old song. You won't believe this but I was quite a dancer in my day." No one denied Grandfather could dance in his day. There was a pause. "Don't lose your way, young man," he said, looking at me. "Don't ask too many questions, and keep the faith."
"A true Irish Catholic would die before giving up his faith," declaimed Uncle Pete, lifting his glass in another toast. "To those who came over despite hardship. To those who died before their time. To the young girl who showed the way."
I wanted to ask, "What girl?" but Uncle Pete continued his toast. "To those who died for a united Irish Nation, free of Protestants and Brits! May we all go back, somedayas Irish, not Brit citizens!" The glasses were lifted. Shirley remained silent, eating, watching the family guests. "We're Americans," said Emmett.
"Irish Americans, and proud of it," Father added.
"I think the Irish will go back to Ireland someday," said Uncle Emmett, "and everyone will prosper."
"To do what? Grow potatoes?" There was a lull in conversation.
"Christmas day and no Vee," Grandfather said after a moment.
"She had other plans," suggested Father. "Off on her own, as usual. Wine, anyone?"
Father's face was red, his eyes moist, his speech affected by the whiskey and wine.
"We really do have to ask questions," said Emmett.
Father looked at his brother. "You're absolutely right."
We finished the meal. Agnes asked if it was good and everyone nodded that it was. Grandfather looked at Agnes with approval, even tenderness. We retired to the front room; Pete described Jew Jess, a Montana dance hall girl and legendary pickpocket. "Bejasus, in court she'd pick the judge's robes. Once I had a ten spot taped to my royal Irish"
"and wasn't I proud of my son at midnight Mass?" Father interrupted. "He cuts a handsome figure as an altar boy." I was curious about Jew Jess.
"He looked fine," said Emmett.
"We have a different service," said Shirley. "But I liked yours. I liked the singing."
No one commented on this admission.
I could remember waiting in the sacristy, then the sight of the spacious altar with its maroon carpet and ship-like pulpit, the tabernacle with its sun-like monstrance holding the Eucharist with the body and blood of Christ. All the vestments had magical names: surplice, cope, miter; the dramatic accessories: chalice, ciborium, the swung censer with its incense smoking. Music filled the big church, soft light from many candles touching the statues, the carved Stations of the Cross showing all the images of the Savior's final agony and passion. The congregation seemed to hold its breath as the priest lifted the white host and called down the Savior. It's hard to say at what point a person "loses the faith." When does the Mass become an old story with little relevance?
"You know what James Joyce called us," said Emmett.
"What was that, may I ask?" said Father.
"A priest-ridden race."
"Oh that's true," agreed Uncle Pete, looking down the hall for Aunt Kate. "If the Protestants don't kill us, the priests will."
"A little Catholicism will do you good. Aunt Kate is right,"
Grandfather insisted. "We must never forget the Catholic martyrs."
"We need a new Irish writer," said Emmett. "Someone to tell the story of modern Irish people. Some renegade to tell our history before we become obsolete."
"The story hasn't changed," said Grandfather. "Remember the Black and Tans. Recruits from England brought over to kill Irish lads." "IRA Irish lads," said Emmett. "They killed a few Irish and Brits, themselves."
"The Irish Republican Army killed traitors!" Grandfather argued. "We were occupied by English invaders."
"The IRA is still brutal," Emmett said.
Father told a story: "I heard a story of two IRA men out to ambush an oppressive Ulster landlord but he was late. 'Say a prayer that nothing has happened to the poor man,' one of the gunmen said."
Grandfather smiled, and Emmett laughed.
"Emmett? Aren't you an Irish writer?" asked Father.
"For a newspaper," said Emmett. "We're paid to get it wrong."
"Why were they called Black and Tans?" They looked at me.
"The uniform," Grandfather said. "Half police, half army. The cowards."
Emmett leaned down. "You like to read. Maybe you can be the serious writer."
It was a sudden, thrilling thought. I filed away the name James Joyce for future exploration. Grandfather lifted his glass. "Irish Poteen. Now that's a drink," he said. "You see enough pink elephants to start a zoo." Sometimes at night alone in the kitchen, I stared at the small black pot-bellied stove, hearing the fire, watching the glow of flame through the grate, the flickering shadows on the wall. A sugar bowl filled with money for emergencies sat on a shelf. The house contained so much history, but it was mute. There were no voices in the flames or moving shadows.
None of the old folks had left behind any personal journals, only a few legal documents and names on ship's lists. Thomas Sr. wasn't sure exactly when he was born, only sometime after a celebrated comet and close to yet another potato famine. One day I would discover Thomas Sr. was born in England but raised in Roscommon. Did his impoverished parents leave Ireland to work as servants of the hated English? Agnes came from a tiny village, Doocastle, in County Sligo, the place of shells celebrated by Yeats. Baptized in Bunnanadden Parish, did she pass the burial cairn of "passionate Maeve," the Celtic goddess, while on her way to Sligo Bay and a ship following her sisters to America?
"Grandmother, how could a goddess die?"
"Maeve became a Catholic and took mortal shape, lad. Then she could die like the rest of us. When a young person dies, particularly a young girl, the angels weep."
Was legendary Maeve the 'young girl' who showed the way?
"Why was she 'passionate'? Does that mean like boy-girl passionate?"
Agnes stared at me over her glasses. Some topics in the house were never mentioned.
"She was passionately angry. Maeve had an arrogant husbandoh, quite proud he waswho had a huge black bull. Maeve decided to buy a bay-colored Ulster bull to rival the black one, but one day, the bulls met and fought, tearing up the ground. Terrible, it was. It's said the dust and clods from their hooves made valleys and cut rivers in Scotland. Trolls living underground came to the surface and became Scots. The bay bull had a green emerald stuck between his eyes. Well, the black bull finally killed Maeve's bay one. She cried, but the green emerald became a lovely island in the Irish Sea."
She picked up her towel and prepared to dry the dishes. "Your grandfather would say that's a lot of blarney, but I say there's a lot of bull in that tale." She threw the towel at me. "I could be after using some help, you know."
Thomas Sr. and Agnes met in San Francisco, unlike so many Irish immigrants who had settled in Boston or Butte, Montana. Exactly how and where they met was never discussed. Any romance seemed remote, yet they had raised five children. Did he learn to dance while courting her in 1914, the year they married at Saint Mary's Cathedral? Another sister of Agnes, Bessie, witnessed the wedding, and relatives always pointed out that Bessie married a Scot. Aunt Kate was destined for eternal black and impregnable virginity.
Everyone came together at Christmas, the house full of Irish voices and singing. When the singers grew tired, Grandfather had a collection of Irish record albums holding 78's in jacket sleeves. He and Father treasured a Bing Crosby collection; I heard the honeyed baritone of Crosby singing "Irish Lullaby" while Father and Grandfather listened in reverence, fighting tears. "Sung like an Irishman," Father said. No one dared mention that Sinatraan Italianhad a wider range. Presents lay around the tree to be opened Christmas morning. Guests would finally leave, exchanging season's greetings and warm good-byes. I stared at the tree with its predominately white lights and saw the tiny gleaming mirrors Agnes liked to hide in the branches. I stood by the ornamental fireplace, looking at the modest library, sipping a small glass of whiskey, thinking of traitorous Dermot and ancient Celtic wars and Christmas celebrations, wondering if good times would ever end.
©2001 Michael Corrigan, all rights reserved (Publish America Press, May 2002). This excerpt from the first chapter of Confessions of a Shanty Irishman is printed with permission of the author.
Born in San Francisco during World War II, raised by a single father and Irish Catholic grandparents, the author grew up between clashing cultures. Nine years in the writing, each chapter in this dark but funny memoir reveals a writer in control of his craft and the people who inhabit it, from the old Irish escaping the troubles in Ireland to the new American generation affected by changing times, rock and roll, and civil unrest. The memoir addresses rebellion and rebirth. The locales and stories vary from California to Idaho, from striking Irish miners in Montana to striking students in San Francisco.
Michael Corrigan currently teaches English and speech at Idaho State University in Pocatello, Idaho. He attended the American Film Institute in Los Angeles and worked as a playwright and director with several theatres. He has worked with Sam Shepard and other theatre and film artists, and toured Idaho and Montana with theatre companies. National Public Radio recently broadcast his play, Letters From Rebecca, that premiered in Ketchum, Idaho. Mr. Corrigan can be reached at corrmich[AT]isu.edu (replace [AT] with @). Confessions of a Shanty Irishman can be purchased through Publish America Press or Amazon.com.
Photographs © Clay Geerdes.