(page 2 of 3)
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.