An Irish-American from the Suburbs
by Denis Clifford © 2004
I'm 100% Irish-American. Which means what? Almost nothing for me while growing up in a prosperous, mostly Protestant New Jersey suburb in the 50's. As a kid, I knew my mother's parents and my father's grandparents "came over on the boat" from Ireland. So? All my buddies' ancestors came from somewhere, and it didn't matter where. I never felt I came from the wrong side of the tracks, and indeed I didn't. If there were any old-line WASPs in town who scorned "Micks," that was an insult I never heard.
During college I pondered whether my childhood fit under the label "alienation." Paul Goodman's Growing Up Absurd described a core of my experience. But simultaneously, I first discovered romantic pride in being Irish. I felt an instinctive loathing for the Anglo-Protestant codes Amherst was trying to coerce onto me (in my junior year I was suspended for two weeks for "excess chapel cuts"). Being Irish, I'd absorbed, meant I was a rebel.
From an early age, I contested (public) grade school teachers, Cub Scout masters, Little League coaches, even nuns (but not priests), usually slyly, occasionally overtly. During seventh grade I came home and proudly announced that our homeroom teacher had angrily put it to a class vote: either I and Timmy went, or he did. Of course, the class voted that he did. Mom, more pleased at my defiance than amused at my naiveté in believing I'd prevailed, shook her head, saying that now she'd have to call the Principal and help straighten things out. Smiling, she reaffirmed the message: stand up to them, rebel.
The message was never stated explicitly. Only later on did I understand that Mom had grown up in a family mistrustful of authority, particularly British authority. An old picture of Mom as a child with her brothers in a donkey cart, taken at some Democratic Party rally in the Bronx, included a large Sinn Fein sign Grandpa had taped on the cart. An uncle of Grandpa's had been executed by the British in the l880s. Grandpa himself, I learned only after he died, would never allow an Englishman inside his home.
My continuing rebellions at Amherst weren't received approvingly at home. My parents had deep faith in Ivy League colleges. We weren't supposed to merely rebel, but to succeed as well. Thumb our noses at the British lords, but be dukes ourselves. When I was officially branded an "underachiever" by Amherst, and continued my unrepentant grumbling about how stuffy the place was, I seemed in danger of blowing the duke bit.
Mom and Dad needn't have worried. I too believed I had to graduate, with honors, from Amherst. Then I'd land a good job (doing what?) and shield myself from a tragedy like Uncle Martin's, who never went to college. Mom had told us many tales of Martin, her youngest brother. Charming and creative, a gifted writer, he produced his own plays for neighbors when he was a teenager. He married a beauty. People cleared the floor when they danced. The Duke of Windsor once told them, "You are poetry in motion." By his late forties, he was unemployed, drinking, and separated—of course divorce was impossible. The summer I turned twenty, while my parents worked and traveled in Peru with their youngest kids, Martin stayed with the rest of us in our summer home. I discovered pitchers of straight vodka in the icebox. Martin sat mute on the porch swing much of the day. Once an empty gin bottle rolled across the sloping porch floor. As one of my brothers put it after Martin died, he was the Irish nightmare, the man you didn't want to become.
Most of the Irishness of my childhood wasn't nearly as mythic, just everyday. Of course, we were a big family. I'm the oldest of seven. In many small ways, my parents encouraged us to be dismissive of dominant WASP codes. Table manners: not only did we never learn "proper" manners, but somehow, without ever directly stating it, Mom and Dad conveyed that all those proprieties were silly. Who cared where Emily Post or the Queen of England proclaimed the knife and fork went? You grabbed them and ate.
Meticulous house cleaning was another denigrated WASP obsession. Mom, physically active, busy with local politics and magazine writing, as well as the kids, didn't think much of women devoted to a ceaseless war against dust. Her mother told her, days before her marriage "Remember Dear, you never heard of anyone erecting a statue to a great housekeeper." Far more disapproved of were parents who forbid children to play in living rooms, so the rooms stayed immaculate. That violated the cardinal rule of hospitality.
In my freshman college year, I invited a roommate to our family's Thanksgiving dinner. Bright and driven, he'd grown up in a family of rigid controls, and still had to account to his father for all his expenses. We arrived at my home, and I announced that he'd be having dinner with us. Aghast, he asked, "You didn't tell them before?" Cavalierly, I answered no, reassuring him that I knew it was okay. Within a few years, I'd concluded that the moral of that story was how self-absorbed I was in college. Though true, the real moral now seems that my parents were profoundly hospitable and my behavior had indeed been okay.
The center of our family culture was talk, stories, and laughter. My mother's first words on my birth were "I hope he has a sense of humor." She loved to tell tales of my father's prickly wit. At a tedious dinner party, he drank several cups of coffee; a man asked if that didn't keep him awake. "It helps," my father replied. My parents seemed to regard dullness as the worst of sins. They'd come back from a dinner party and moan, "Oh, are they boring!" and I knew I must never become that.
Talk was performance. Unconsciously, you learned to use your body, hands, face, as well as your voice and mind, to hold attention. When you performed, you did not make eye contact, or reveal emotions. Nothing personal. Mom had grown up in the Irish political-civil-servant culture of New York City, so the major subject of our talk, aside from personal trivia like school events or golf scores, was U.S. politics. Irish politics, present or past, wasn't mentioned. Nor did we talk about Irish history or traditions. I never heard of dreams of "visiting the auld sod."
Though my family's processes may have been drenched in Irishness, the content wasn’t. The arts my parents valued were an American-European melange, with little drawn from Ireland. Music was Mozart or operas on Saturday radio, pop songs or Gilbert and Sullivan. The one John McCormack record we had was never played. The only singing we did was Christmas carols, not "Galway Bay" or "A Nation Once Again." Our bookshelves held an eclectic mix, from mountain climbing sagas to tough-guy mysteries to Jane Austen, but no Irish works I recall, except a stray As I Was Going Down Sackville Street.
We didn't participate in any "Irish community"—no Irish-American parades, clubs, newspapers, or celebrations. Indeed, though the number of Irish-Americans in our town steadily increased, there didn't seem to be any Irish community, aside from attendance at Sunday mass. Which, I later concluded, was the point: Irish-Americans wanted to leave their historical baggage behind. Dad left his hometown of Bismark, North Dakota when he was eighteen. He returned once, for his mother's funeral.
Mom's parents, raised in Manhattan's Hell's Kitchen, now lived in a respectable New York suburb. Every Christmas day we crossed the Hudson to visit Grandma's and Grandpa's for a family gathering. Mom worshipped Grandpa. Each year, she spent considerable energy and thought trying to find him a present he'd love. Whatever she gave him, he'd open it, at best barely nod, then ignore it, saying nothing. One Christmas Mom believed she'd finally done it. Grandpa had retired from his job in the New York City Dock Department, and suffered from serious arthritis. He'd transferred much of his intensity to bird watching. Mom researched and searched until she found the perfect birdhouse, just right for the birds who flew by his house, for the weather, and for attaching it to his back window.
Grandpa unwrapped the birdhouse and held it out, eyeing it skeptically as his lip curled. "That's silly,” he snapped. “What would I want that for?" and dropped it down. Mom erupted in tears, sobbing that he'd never loved her. Dad, standing beside me, shook his head pensively and said quietly, "I don't understand how two people who love each other so much can hurt each other so much." Adults quickly bustled us kids upstairs. When we were called back down, the grownups presented themselves cheerfully, and it was Christmas again.
When my grandfather died, every present my mother had ever given him was found hidden away in his attic. Each present was carefully preserved, and dated with the year he'd received it.
I absorbed a diluted version of Grandpa's code, accepting without reflection that I'd never reveal anything really intimate (including to myself). I knew my parents loved each other, but rarely saw them hug. Strong people, they rarely displayed troubled feelings, or negative emotions, except temper. Mom sporadically erupted in anger, like a tea kettle boiling over. Dad was darker, prone to rage at us kids, though never at Mom, as far as I saw. But with either, angers passed like sudden storms, and then it was back to normal: strength. You didn't ask for anything, because you never needed anything. If sickness wasn't exactly a disgrace, it certainly was not a cause for attention. Like a wounded animal, you healed best when left alone. The family doctor was not to be bothered unless you were alarmingly ill. On one level, my parents subscribed to American cheerfulness; things will work out. But at their core they were more Celtic stoics than optimists. When Dad’s back went out, he carried on until unbearable pain forced him to him a chiropractor, who snapped his back into place and he returned promptly to work. All her life, when she went to a dentist my mother refused novocaine, or any pain killer.
My parents drew strength from their Catholicism. Dad, a man plagued by his inner demons, once told me that praying in church helped him feel peaceful. Their Catholicism wasn't a matter of obeying rules. They read Monsignor Knox and Cardinal Newman. Subscribers to the liberal Catholic magazine Commonweal, they spoke of its editor, a friend, as a successful man, though his success clearly wasn't in making money. A friend of mine once asked Mom if she'd had so many children because she was a Catholic. She replied no, that she'd wanted to have many children since she was eight years old and had visited a big family. She added, "I'm the kind of Catholic who would have found a way not to have had many children if I didn't want them."
I acquired none of their faith. To me, religion was pointless rituals: church, confession, Sunday school. We attended mass at St. Cassians (whoever he was). Inside the attractive wood building, stained glass windows shed beautifully colored light, while a priest conducted service in mysterious Latin. On Fridays, you could "confess your sins." I'd kneel in the small, enclosed confessional, the priest would slide a wood panel open and I'd speak through a mesh screen. "Bless me Father for I have sinned..." After hearing my transgressions, the kindly, elderly parish priest would give his standard penance: "Ten Our Fathers, Ten Hail Marys. Now make a good Act of Contrition."
In puberty, I now had to reveal that "I had impure thoughts and deeds." We now had a second priest, young and earnest, who responded to my code phrase with "Alone or with others?" How I longed to answer, "With others. Several others. At the same time!" But no, I had to responded with the humiliating "Alone." The young priest spoke to me at length about how I could resist my urges, how deeply sins of the flesh hurt God. And I'd get a stiff penance. After several sessions with him, I decided I'd never go back. I'd go to the old priest or, increasingly, not bother.
From age six, I went to Sunday school classes run by nuns. We studied the Baltimore Catechism. I puzzled over that "Baltimore;" it seemed an odd city for God to fix on. But it was never explained. Indeed, nothing was explained. "Study" meant we were supposed to memorize rules about God and man. I remember two: "Who made you? God made you. Why did God make you? To know, love, and serve Him in this world and be happy with Him ever after in Heaven." Catechism held hundreds more rules: the difference between a mortal sin and a venial sin, the difference between actual grace and sanctifying grace, the seven attributes of something or other. The worst sins—surprise!— had something to do with sex. Not that sex was mentioned, but we all knew that when a nun warned vehemently against "near occasions of sin," the sin sure wasn't gluttony.
By the time I was nine, I sat in the back pews at Sunday school and goofed with some buddies. The nuns usually ignored us. When I became an adolescent, Catholicism had dwindled to a gathering of teenagers outside church during Sunday mass. Then, when I was fourteen, Dad got a consulting job in Europe and we spent a year living in Paris. I saw people kissing in the streets and ads for the Folies-Bergére. Dad laughed that French priests seemed unconcerned with "sins of the flesh." What? Sexual morality was relative? My first clue that the Catholicism I'd grown with was distinctly Irish, not, as it proclaimed, "universal."
A friend once spoke with me about the Jewish history he'd learned growing up. "Well, you learned yours too, in church," he sensibly added. Not a word of it, I replied. Nor did I learn any Irish history in the public schools I attended, nothing about the English conquest and enslavement of Ireland, or Cromwell's devastation (I was told he was a good guy). No troubling questions about why millions starved to death during the potato famine while Ireland exported immense amounts of food to England.
During my twenties, I grew interested in understanding what, if anything, it meant that I was an Irish-American. I began to read Irish literature, and also learned a few nuggets of family history. Some relative had traced Dad's Clifford family back to a legend that an Episocalian priest from England ran off with his Irish housemaid. Dad's grandfather was a lad of sixteen when he set out from near Cork for Boston. Somehow, when he got off the boat he was in New Orleans. No one knew anymore how he made it to North Dakota.
Mom's family were Corbetts and McDonalds, from western Ireland. Grandpa's Dad was known as the best jig dancer in county Tyrone. A gamekeeper (and, some said, a poacher) in Ireland, in the U.S. he got a civil service job as keeper of the buffalo herd in Van Cortland Park in the Bronx. Mom grew up in an extended Irish family of parents, brothers, aunts, uncles, grandparents, cousins, a world that vanished in one generation. Well, I had forebears, but, beyond a few good stories, so what?
In 1973, I and my love Linda left California to live in Ireland for many reasons, including curiosity. Why not explore the country of my ancestors?
After dreary days apartment hunting, we found a flat in Monkstown, Dublin, with only a park occupied by a Tinker's wagon separating us from the Irish sea. Joyce's tower was a couple miles walk south.
Ireland was poor. The ten-gallon bathtub we had was a luxury, not found in working class homes. Electricity was costly. Our landlord told us that by government decree the heat was on only from twelve at night to eight in the morning.
An aspiring writer, I'd lugged my typewriter from the U.S., planning on buying a transformer to adapt Irish electrical current to my machine. Trudging around Dublin searching for a transformer, I met several shop owners who charmingly assured me they used to have transformers, surely they'd have them tomorrow... but right now, no … but … just go up the road, make a left and I'm sure... Finally, I arrived at a major electrical supply store and located the manager, who greeted me cheerily. I told him what I wanted. He was baffled. Several minutes of my fumbling explanations didn't help, but he retained his good spirits as I plugged on. Finally, he brightened.
"Ah, it's a transformer you're wanting."
I allowed that it was.
"Ah yes, well for that, you have to talk to Michael."
"Fine. Can you tell me where he is?"
"To tell you the truth," the man laughed, "I'm looking for him meeself."
Yes, they had a different attitude toward work here than in the U.S. I asked the owner of a hardware store if it was open on Saturdays. "Sometimes," he answered. So perhaps I could ascribe my aversion to the puritan work ethic to my heritage. Maybe it was even in my genes?
Love of talk and language was clearly Irish. People's voices had a lilt. They could speak with the brevity of poetry. When I asked the teenage daughter of a bed and breakfast proprietor why there weren't any Irish history books in their library, she replied "Ah, it's all written in our hearts." Often, talk had a bite. In a restaurant, I overheard a woman say to her teary daughter, "Ah, love is blind, but marriage is an eye-opener."
The land was beautiful, often wild and harsh. Walking in the fierce winds and lonely hills of Donegal I thought: a man could get strong here—indeed he'd have to be to survive—but he'd never flower. I began to see Mom and Dad as only two generations from a vital, harsh, repressed country. Much about them was understandable as their U.S evolution from Irishness.
We drove back from Donegal through Northern Ireland. Machine-gun toting, full-battle-dressed British troops, mostly teenagers, halted us as we entered the border town of Strabane. The last remaining hotel in the central square had been blown up by the IRA Provos two nights before. Near the ruins, we picked up a hitchhiker, a handsome man who worked for a Dublin ad agency and regularly hitched home on weekends to see his pals and his ma. Driving out of Strabane, we were stopped by more troops. The road was littered with spent rubber bullets. Nearby walls were pockmarked from real bullets and covered with scrawled IRA slogans.
Stunned, I exclaimed my shock. "We're having a wee bit of a social problem," our passenger drawled. I laughed and looked at him, declaring that I was surprised he could joke about it. Smiling, he replied, "Ah, if you didn’t laugh at it, you'd go mad."
There was much in Ireland I wasn't finding it easy to laugh at. Birth control and divorce were banned. Books and movies were censored. Beneath their charm, the Irish were essentially impenetrable to this outsider. The few glimpses beneath the surface I got weren't encouraging. In a pub, a guy who worked for an Irish bank said he was envious of me; he'd love to drop out for a while, but he never could. If he did, he'd never be hired again by an Irish bank. At a party, I met a stylishly dressed woman from fashionable Ballsbridge who worked for Irish TV. I asked her if she went to Sunday mass. She nodded yes. I asked why; we both knew she wasn't a believer. "Ah, if you didn't, people would talk."
My only real connection to Dublin life was my one Irish friend from California. Drinking heavily, he’d returned to living with his parents in the Coombe. Watching him tell stories in a pub, performing the same performance I'd seen many times, I felt weariness and yearned for intimacy.
Bitter rain fell on an October day. Sheets of icy water and knife-wind battered me as I ran to a little Monkstown food store. As I shook water from my rain jacket and shivered, the counter-woman said, without apparent irony, "Ah, t'll be getting cold soon."
SOON! Hey, I'm a Californian. Within days, I was on a plane home. In New York, at JFK, I entered a cacophony of noise, colors, clothes smells, an immense swirling whirl of peoples: Latinos, Whites, Blacks, Asians, Arabs. Languages and accents seemed innumerable. I recognized Spanish, Italian, Southern U.S., Bronx, French. I felt radiated with human energy, vitality. After I had passed through Customs, I overheard four black workers arguing about basketball, their voices rising above the bedlam of the crowd. "Reed? He'll never come back!" "Oh yeah, and The Celtics gonna stop Frazier with Jo-Jo?" Joyously, I felt, "I'm home!"
I returned to Ireland for a month's visit twenty years later. Much had changed. Urban crime had arrived; some Dublin streets were dangerous even during the day. Most changes, happily, seemed positive. Ireland, a member of the European Community, was actually becoming prosperous. Young men and women seemed freer, less fearful of the church. There was talk that divorce would be legalized. I stayed in several Irish homes, meeting people much more candid than those I'd encountered two decades before. And electricity wasn't controlled by the government. Indeed, I was assured that it never had been.
Much hadn't changed. The people remained witty, hospitable and wonderful talkers. The land, especially in the West, remained fierce. The scale of the country, of course, couldn't change. Ireland would always be small, without the space I loved in the U.S. west. Most of all, I remained clear that being Irish, or Irish-American, simply wasn't my core identity. Much of Irish culture, from its Gaelic sports to the intertwining of church and state, remained foreign to me. I returned to the U.S. with a renewed fondness for Ireland, but reinforced that I was an American.
Yeah, I'm happy to know I'm assimilated. In Harp, John Gregory Dunne asserts that the final stage of assimilation is "deracination," being fully uprooted. I suggest the final stage is the reverse, being fully rerooted, at home (if not at ease) with U.S. oxygen. The immigrant's sense of being an outsider, or living in dual worlds, has vanished. "This land is my land, from California to the New York Island," from jazz and rock 'n roll to ghettos and gun nuts.
But for all its complexities, U.S. culture can be thin soil. Didn't I lose much of value because my sense of being "Irish" is so attenuated? Wouldn't I have grown up with a deeper sense of myself, less alienated, if my Irish heritage had been passed on to me?
I doubt it. Perhaps I would have had a more solid sense of identity if Grandma and Grandpa had told me stories of their lives, revealing their immigrant experiences. But they had walls against revealing. They brought those walls from Ireland. As Mary Gordon observed, until recently, the Irish inhibition against revealing resulted in curious dearth of writing about the Irish-American assimilation experiences—James T. Farrell, Edwin O'Connor, not many more.
Certainly my parents weren't concerned with passing on "Irishness," with the exception of Catholicism. They didn't want to be hyphenated-Americans, they wanted to be Americans, plain and pure.
Beyond this, what heritage am I talking about? Since I was never told any, I can create my fantasy, a melange of history (tragic or heroic), family sagas and love of Irish writers. Hey, throw in Irish music and dance too. And make sure it's all transmitted by genuine enthusiasm. Nothing compulsory, or I'll hate it.
How romantic, a "heritage" with all pains, vindictiveness and oppressions removed from Irish life and character. If the truth could really be told, how dark was my heritage? And how varied? Does it make sense to lump my ancestors into a single "heritage?" All questions I'll never be able to answer. I suspect there was much darkness in my ancestors' Irish life, darkness still sometimes manifest in the U.S., as with the banning homosexuals from New York's St. Patrick's day parade.
Not that being an Irish-American feels meaningless. I enjoy using my ethnicity as one prism for viewing life, especially with Irish-American friends. A little deeper, I enjoy rummaging around in traditions of what's Irish, extracting what seems to fit: yeah, I've got the gift of gab, I'm a dreamer, a rebel. When I was younger, I'd offer being Irish as a convenient explanation, if not justification, for drinking too much. Deepest, I try to live those of my parents' Irish-American values that I value, from hospitality to love of reading to demand for freedom. On the other hand are Irish traits like melancholy or fear of intimacy that I'd like to move as far away from as I can. And how about the demons that can torment me? Are they inherited from my father? From Ireland?
Whatever those demons are, I don't—can't—define myself as "Irish." I do read Irish writers, and follow the country's politics with more interest than most Americans, but Ireland's not a country I feel a profound attachment to. I'm not a member of any Irish-American social group. My romantic dreams haven't included marrying an Irish-American woman to keep the genetic strain (whatever that is) pure. And I've surely never returned to the church.
I suspect mine is a typical evolution, and that ethnic origins, though interesting, will dwindle in significance as descendants of immigrants from any nation become fully Americanized. After years in Manhattan, whose residents are surely conscious of enthnicity, my brother Steve moved to Seattle. A Seattlite mentioned someone who had, to Steve, an ethnically puzzling name. He asked "What kind of name is that?" The Seattlite looked puzzled. "It's an American name," he answered.
This is not to argue against diversity. How can you knock someone for feeling connected to an ethnic tradition? My friends who find richness in Berkeley's alternate Jewish community are fortunate. Sure, preserve all the "old ways,” from rituals, custom, and ceremonies to music, dance, and art, that people care to. But all the while, the dominant U.S. culture will continue to absorb and alter values brought from other lands. Seen from the reverse perspective, formerly distinctive ethnic values evolve, blend and enrich the larger, amorphous U.S. culture. This process is far more liberating than sad, let alone tragic. As Robert Henri wrote "The greatest American ... will be heir to the world instead of part of it, and will go to every place where he feels he may find something of the information he desires, whether it be in one province or another."