Irish Yearning

 

Anni Betts

It’s that time of the year when the whole world goes green.

In Chicago, the river runs green. In Dublin, Ohio, where they recently step-danced into the Guinness Book of Records, green duds are de rigueur. The White House will become a Green House with President Obama—who has some Irish genes—donning shamrocks. And in parades in New Haven and even New Canaan, in Sydney, Seoul and Savannah, St. Patrick’s Day features such an outpouring that the Mad Hatter himself might be alarmed.

But what does being even part Irish mean anymore in Connecticut on the other 364 days of the year? The people of this state, where nearly one out of five citizens claims Irish roots, once knew well. “The Land of Steady Habits” was transformed by an Irish population that exploded from 1,000 or so in 1840 to 55,000 by 1860, to perhaps 250,000 (including their offspring) by 1890. The earliest immigrants arrived via filthy “coffin ships,” then crammed together in hovels and tenements to work as chambermaids, factory hands and canal diggers—or simply to beg.

And they were not always welcomed here, what with the Hartford Courant at one point raging against “ignorant, degraded and priest-led foreigners.” “No Irish Need Apply” signs were commonplace.

Being Irish in 19th-century Connecticut involved wrenching feelings of loss—among parents and siblings forever separated, families devastated by infant mortality and a feeling that they’d never see their homeland again.

“The history of the Irish in Connecticut began in anguish,” says John Lahey, president of Quinnipiac University, which recently opened the extraordinary Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum, dedicated to the Great Famine and its aftermath of mass migration to America. “They had to scrape for the lowest, most dangerous and backbreaking jobs, and suffered from an incredible sense of disorientation. People used to say, ‘Don’t hire the freed slaves, hire the Irish—they’re cheaper.’”

My own paternal ancestors hailed from a dirt farm in County Monaghan, where 16 children were stuffed into a couple of bedrooms—the common practice then was for children to sleep in dresser drawers. Like so many of his compatriots arriving in Connecticut’s gritty industrial cities, my great-grandfather, John S. Monaghan, a late conscript in the Army of the Republic in the Civil War, moved down from upstate New York and landed a job in a mill—in his case, the inferno of Waterbury’s Scovill Rolling Mill. There, men toiled at belching furnaces, slopped molten fluids and hefted raw copper and bronze into “pickling” vats. The last involved stirring sulfuric and nitric acid to cleanse the raw ore to make a better, brighter button. Molten zinc, lead and antimony in the brew gave off fumes so toxic that delirious tremors were nearly universal. The antidote was whiskey and song:

“They’ll send you to the muffles, boys,
and they’ll say that all is swell,
But just you take a tip from me,
I’d rather be in Hell.
If he gave me a broom to sweep the floor,
I’d do it with a will,
But I’ll be damned if I’ll work at the pickle tub
for Wilcox in the mill.”

The new immigrants, my own ancestors included, somehow adopted dual identities, with one foot in their new land and another still feeling back for its Irish identity, like a trembling vestigial limb. During the Civil War, the primarily Irish “Fighting Ninth Regiment” out of New Haven lost a third of its numbers while battling for the Union at Vicksburg and Baton Rouge. Yet its leaders would soon join in the launching of a star-crossed brigantine called Erin’s Hope to take thousands of guns back to Ireland. In 1883, a submarine called Fenian Ram could get no farther than from New York to New Haven in its hopes of wreaking havoc on British shipping. A similar fiasco beset its Irish-American-engineered predecessor, the Intelligent Whale. Eventually, most of that passion subsided, although in some quarters it never disappeared.
 

 

Time turns like a storybook. By the late 1950s when I was a boy in Waterbury, the idea of being Irish in Connecticut had been airbrushed beyond recognition. The Irish saga then was of triumphing by rising through the police force or labor unions or professions, and buying winged Chevrolets and gaining membership in country clubs where once no Irish had been welcome. My father infused me with peculiar ideas about being Irish. One was to explain that we were not Italian.   

In 1958, my pajamas had feet. I’d curl up in them at the top of the stairs as my parents laughed and drank into the night with friends named Walsh, Hennebry, Healey, O’Neill, Bradley and Quinn. Somehow they still clung to an idea of themselves as being a people apart. My friend Tommy Noonan’s mother prayed in the dark with her rosary beads. Not my parents. A couple of their friends once got so plastered they found themselves at Shannon Airport the next morning without knowing how or why. My father would say, “The Irish are the funniest people in the world! We’re different.”

Right. My aunt married an Italian, my uncle a Jew. But still the Waterbury Irish would sing:

“Just go down to New York, me boys,
and hear the ocean roar,
You’ll think you see your mother standing
at the cabin door
Crying, “Darling Jack, come back again,
and the old farm you can till
Then no more you’ll roam from your native home to work in the rolling mill.”


My own curiosity about Ireland brought me to study in Dublin in the 1970s. There I heard that Irish-Americans had had it way too easy. Sure, now. Later, I would return to the Ould Sod with my very Irish-American wife, Jamie, a Roscommon-to-New Jersey lass, and in 2000, we moved our family from Cornwall in the northwest corner of Connecticut to Cork in the gorgeous sea-brilliant southwest of Ireland.  

By then, Ireland was in the thrall of a boom, and buying more Mercedes per capita than any country on earth, or at least Europe. The place had gone vibrant. Foreigners—once a peculiarity—were putting down stakes, or blowing in and out. Some were transplanted dreamers, but far more were working for multinational manufacturers of computer chips or medical devices or pharmaceuticals. If the weather was “close,” Cork City, our new Holy Roman Catholic home, was thick with Viagra fumes.

By now, that boom is a memory, but many of the transplants remain. I often ask them how they’re adapting.

“I think some people feel like they are almost connecting with past lives the moment they arrive,” says Yvonne Kennedy, head of the Americans Women’s Club of Dublin. “But some have no genetic connection at all. One of my friends here is from Italy. Her family got a postcard from Ireland when she was 7 and she treasured it for years. She felt like it was a signal that she would move here one day, that she always knew she had to be here, and that’s what she did. Another Irish-American friend said he’d paid no attention to his roots growing up but that his hair nearly stood on end the moment he got off the plane.”

Kennedy, originally from Watertown, is married to an Irishman she met in Shanghai. She has lived in Clontarf, north of Dublin, for eight years and her sons have thick Irish accents. She is amazed by how removed from their Irish roots the greenest-sounding Americans can seem upon arrival.

“My husband’s aunt runs a B&B,” she says. “She’s forever surprised at how much Irish-Americans complain about the smallest things here. They want gallons more hot water in their showers than Irish people do. They are particular about toast and cannot live without their GPS.”

Gone, gone, in short, are the days of the Scovill Rolling Mill.
 

 

Here’s another take. Desmond Sharp-Bolster is an Irishman whose name and accent have that ring of the once-ruling Anglo-Irish caste that would have been anathema to the half-starved Gaels arriving in Connecticut in the 19th century. But after the Irish uprising in 1920-21, great numbers of his class were pushed into ruination, while thousands more fled under threat of death back to mother England.

Back in the 1960s and ’70s, his job was to be the face of Ireland in Connecticut, and the U.S. in general, as a senior marketing executive for Guinness.

“Our mission then was to teach people to drink a pint,” he says. “Back then, Irish-Americans in Connecticut drank Guinness in 6-ounce bottles called ‘nips,’ usually followed by 15-cent glasses of beer.” Desmond’s job in part was to host uproarious affairs that played to the nostalgia of the by-then widely affluent Irish. “People looked at a pint glass like it was a thing of wonder,” he recalls. “People loved my accent. It was party time to present yourself as being Irish back then. It was a given that if you were into being Irish that you were into the drink, and some of the behavior that went on would be shocking today. But God we had fun.”  

With his wife, Melanie, a native of Greenwich, Desmond now runs an ivy-wreathed guesthouse in County Cork called Glenlohane, with 250 acres of rolling fields—not rolling mills—gamboled by thoroughbreds.
 

These days, I spend a lot of my time writing in a bolt-hole beside a magical river in County Waterford. But even after 13 years in this country, I cannot understand half the people I meet there. Their syllable-grinding accents resemble those of dental patients recovering from root canals—because they are not talking Irish English per se or any other tongue known to me and you. The Blackwater Valley was invaded by waves of Vikings and Normans, then planted with settlers from the English West Country. And so the way of talking along the Blackwater River is a mind-bending mishmash, as is the gene pool.

Outside my cottage window I see trumpeter swans streaking past, and sometimes from the dark water a mighty salmon leaps—the softness of even the gloom here can feel eternal. Still, in the local village so many jobless people seem to have almost given up, far more than I ever saw in Connecticut. And my children, what of them? Are they supposed to live on parents’ dreams?

So what does it mean to be Irish?

A native of Milford named Robbyn Swan lives just down the river. She is the co-author of best-selling books like The Eleventh Day: The Full Story of 9/11 with her half-English/half-Irish husband Anthony Summers. But is Robbyn Irish?

“My father thought he was Irish from his mother’s side, which was despised by his Welsh/Scottish side,” she says. “I mean, he would wear a green hat on St. Patrick’s Day and sing ‘When Irish Eyes Are Smiling.’ But I always thought I was Italian because my mother was from Naples and she produced the food I will never forget and can’t find here.

“Even after 20 years, in some ways I don’t really understand what being Irish means,” Swan continues. “One of my kids speaks with a Waterford accent, another with a Cork one—that has to do with their schools—and the oldest fellow sounds half-Slavic since he had a nanny who was Czech.”

Desmond Sharp-Bolster’s wife, Melanie, is another transplant who’s not quite fully at home here. “My father was a Casey, so you could say in moving back here I was coming home,” she says. “And I do love the soft edges of life in Ireland. There is more mystery to life in Ireland than I remember in Connecticut. You slide into things here and you don’t know where a conversation will end. I love all that. But I will never stop feeling that I am a foreigner living in another country.”

Melanie’s refrain is often repeated. The transplanted Connecticut people I talk to in Ireland have a touching nostalgia for the smallest things back in their native state—just as the Irish immigrants of 150 years ago would have felt in reverse.

Robbyn Swan travels worldwide while researching her blockbuster books on subjects like 9/11, Richard M. Nixon and Frank Sinatra. Yet she aches for Sally’s Pizza in New Haven and Lasse’s Restaurant in Milford (where she got fired for spilling soup on a priest). Like others here, she rues the stridency she finds across present-day America and the billboards for guns and porn she saw during a recent visit to the Naugatuck Valley—an in-your-face culture that fades away in Irish living. Hoever, she sighs,“There is a big part of me that will always remain in Connecticut. Milford will always be my true home.”

Yvonne Kennedy brings her two sons, Thomas and Connor, back to Watertown every summer. There the former student of anthropology falls in love again with simple pleasures like swimming and tennis and campfires in the local park, and the bushels of early sugar-sweet corn—the first hints of the golden, glorious autumn to come. “Would I want to die and be buried forever in Ireland?” she wonders. “That’s an odd question I sometimes worry about in the night. I guess I hope not.”

Such are the common wrinkles of today’s search for ethnic identity, notes Quinnipiac’s Lahey. “The immigrant’s tale is a universal one of loss and rediscovery, with two sides of one’s identity always playing against each other.”

Food for thought perhaps for all those tucking into corned beef and cabbage this March 17. Few will be doing so in Ireland, though, and not a one will be on the green beer. Oh, there will be fantastical parades, sometimes featuring Connecticut and New York firemen in full regalia. Drums will bang, fake serpents will spit flame, and transplants from Poland, Brazil and Nigeria will dance en masse—for the new people of Ireland are everywhere, and from everywhere.

What they will think about it all the next morning is another question. For Ireland is the land of eternal yearning still—whether it is to return to it or escape.

David Monagan is the author of Ireland Unhinged (Council Oak Books and Transworld Ireland/Random House, 2011) and Jaywalking with the Irish (Lonely Planet, 2004). He currently writes a "Letter from Ireland" blog for Forbes.
 

Irish Yearning

Reader Comments

comments powered by Disqus
 
ADVERTISEMENT