For a musician like me, Saint Paddy’s Day is right up there with New Years Eve as an opportunity for good-paying gigs. The widespread popularity of the holiday (they even celebrate it in England, for crying out loud) is unique among ethnic holidays, and speaks, I think, to the seductive charm of the Irish persona.
When I attended Holy Cross Grade School in Mount Airy in the 1950s, the majority of the students were second generation Americans from large families. You were either “Irish,” or “Italian.” There were no hyphens back then. Ethnic slurs and taunts were part of the daily repertoire, but there was no real hatred between the groups, just random scuffling on a daily basis. As a confirmed coward, I was scared of both the kids AND the teachers.
I remember the nuns would occasionally herd us into the gym and show us old films like “Going My Way,” or “Boys Town.” There were always wise old pipe-smoking Irish priests as the heroes in those stories. In real life, the pastor of Holy Cross, Father Kelly, was so feared by us boys that our parents would threaten to call him whenever we acted up at home.
I was the only child of a single mom – Marie Genevieve O’Kane, the youngest of eight born to Irish immigrants. She, too, went to Holy Cross, and all of her family remained in the area. Mom and I lived in the Pelham Court apartments on Emlen Street, and she waitressed right next door at the Irish Center.
On Friday nights, she would sneak me in to hear live music, which I loved. On Saturday, I took Irish dancing lessons in the Ballroom. When the huge class got to dancing, it sounded like a buffalo stampede. A couple of my friends and I would always try to line up near the back of the room and dance backwards right out through the double-doors into the kitchen, where we would beg the chef for food and wait for the class to end.
My mom and her brothers and sisters got together often. They were all first generation Americans, but they considered themselves Irish. They were taught by their parents that they had to work extra hard and at least appear to be model citizens, because there had been a lot of anti-immigrant prejudice, and decent jobs were hard to find (sound familiar?). In spite of that, family get-togethers were often raucous. Whether in someone’s home or out at a restaurant, there was always lots of singing, dancing, drinking, and the occasional disagreement. These were, after all, passionate, opinionated people.
Once, when I was perusing a 19th century local newspapers at the Germantown Historical society, I came across a headline that said, “‘Fighting Irish’ at it again.” It was about some party that degenerated into a brawl and ended up with folks being hauled away in a Paddy wagon. That’s when I first realized that Notre Dame’s prideful moniker probably started out life as an epithet.
The O’Kanes were fiercely loyal to family and friends, and every one of them had the heart of a poet. Words and language were very important, and they loved telling stories. They could make you laugh or reduce you to tears.
Times change. My wife is Jewish and my son is African-American. Holy Cross School is 95% African-American, and Mount Airy is a model of diversity and integration. I have little extended family and I don’t drink. With my hot Irish blood, that’s a luxury I can’t afford. Don’t want to end up in the newspapers.
So I guess I’ve been trying to dance my way out of my heritage all my life. I tell myself that I’m an American, and that it doesn’t matter where I came from, but in the end, I just can’t ignore the fact that I inherited a lot of who I am from that Irish tradition.
I became a writer and a musician, and whenever I play one of those schmaltzy Irish-American tunes like Galway Bay or Irish Eyes, I see my mother’s smiling face and I cry like a baby. For me, that’s the real purpose of Saint Paddy’s Day – remembering.
Jim Harris is a musician and videographer who was born and raised in Mount Airy and presently lives in Germantown with his wife, son, and several cats and dogs. Jim also writes for the Chestnut Hill Local newspaper, and his band, Saint Mad, performs at Crossroads Coffee House in Roxborough onthe first Friday of each month.