“For the great Gaels of Ireland
Are the men that God made mad
For all their wars are merry
And all their songs are sad.”
G. K. Chesterton
Grandfather had a way about him. A terrible way. I remember him as stern, abrupt, and angry. He didn’t speak much, but when he did, it was to bark out some command, usually to my Grandmother, who would stop whatever she was doing and dutifully commence doing whatever it was that “Himself” wanted her to do. Yes, he was Irish. We’re all Irish (thanks be to God!). When all four grandparents come from “the old country,” you grow up surrounded by all the platitudes and tributes that have been bestowed upon your “personage” given that you come from such a pure, powerful, and primary people. Equally, you learn early and well the many flaws and brutal features that make us real “Munster” people.
My grandfather would drink regularly…a shot of whiskey with breakfast, a shot and a beer with lunch, and after working all day on the farm (I am told) he would celebrate “vespers” with his fellow tribesmen at the local pub. It was tradition. It was the way of life. It’s what men did.
Sometimes, when he was not home after Grandmother had burned more than half a candle in the evening darkness, she would send my father the two miles to the village to retrieve Himself. Dad would tell me stories of the great joy that was immediately felt upon entering O’Flaherty’s Tavern. The great brotherhood of bar-mates: everyone so convivial: singing, laughing, talking loudly and forcefully about some pressing issue of the day. They sat on stools, physically closer to each other than they would ever be with their own family; face to face, engaged in some controversial conversation about the best time to cut the peat, how wet sheep can be and still accomplish a good shearing, and other pressing news of the day.
Smoke, heavy and fog-like, filled the place. Once, my grandfather tried to compare pub smoke with the heavenly scent of incense rising to our Heavenly Father at St. Bridget’s Church. Grandmother was not pleased. “How would you know about church? Do you even remember?” Her words carried that great Irish combination of condescension, guilt and shame. She was her best when she had a chance to stand up for God (especially if it meant she could berate ‘Himself’ with her salvific words: “You know you really should go to church. It’s not good for the children that their own father doesn’t go to holy mass. I can only imagine what the neighbors are saying!” Still, the smoke in O’Flaherty’s was a heavenly scent to my grandfather and his ‘faith community,’ the brethren of the bar.
There are certain qualities that uniquely define the Irish and their descendants. In his remarkable book, How The Irish Saved Civilization, Thomas Cahill cites a description of the Irish written by the English Jesuit Edmund Campion (who was martyred in Tyburn in 1581), a description that rings true to this day: “The people are thus inclined: religious, franke, amorous, irefull, sufferable of paines infinite, very glorious, many sorcerers, excellent horsemen, delighted with warres, great alms-givers, (sur)passing in hospitalie… They are sharp witted, lovers of learning, capable of any studie whereunto they bend themselves, constant in travaile, adventurous, intractable, kinde-hearted, secret in displeasure.”
Any of us who have received the Celtic gene can add our own generalizations: The Irish are loyal to a fault…if they stand with you, they will die with you. Similarly, if you comment about a friend or relative is taken as an insult, not only will they will never speak to you again, they will never speak of you again. Family members can go 40, 50 years, until death and beyond, without reconciling with a close relative because something was said and taken offensively (even if what was said cannot be remembered!). They abhor signs of human affection. Surely, the Irish created the phrase, “Children are to be seen and not heard.” (And the terrible, though telling, description of Irish sexual foreplay: “Brace yourself, Bridget!”). They dislike most other ethic groups (they hate the English!). They think Italians are showy and clownish. They believe French men are disgraceful and effete. They believe that Black people are an aberration. They believe that the Jewish people are responsible for Christ’s death. And, Irish men are virtually unable to genuinely express gratitude. They do not say “Thank you.”
A true story from my own Irish clan is a classic example of this tremendous flaw. No one can remember my grandfather every saying “thank you.” His belief was that a person did what he/she was given to do, period. God took note of everything, therefore, since God was aware of the good you may have done, that was sufficient. For a person to offer someone a compliment, to acknowledge your effort, your work, by “spicing you up” with superlatives, would be viewed as wasteful, gratuitous, and eulogistic. It was not done. However, working hard and trying to do your best each day can feel quite oppressive when it seems to be taken for granted, when one never hears a word of appreciation.
After 28 years of living her life in service to ‘Himself,” Grandmother had had enough. Sunday was her hardest, busiest day. She would rise early to do the daily chores, then prepare everyone’s Sunday clothes, and get the child ready for holy mass. After church, she would come home to make lunch for the family, then see to it that the children played quietly in the yard (not disturbing their father who would smoke his pipe and read the Sunday paper in the living room, and certainly not spoiling their Sunday clothes).
Grandmother spent the afternoon in the small, inconvenient kitchen, working methodically and quietly, cooking the great Sunday supper: Roast beef, potatoes, gravy, brown bread, soda bread, carrots and peas, and white cake with vanilla/coconut icing (from scratch!). Had she worked in a fine restaurant and produced such a meal, the patrons would have surely sent word to the kitchen, “Our great compliments to the Chef!” But that was not Grandfather’s way.
Supper was served at 6 p.m. Grandfather was hungry by then. The children had all washed up, taken their respective seats at the table and, when the great one, Jeremiah Patrick Slaney, took his seat at the head of the table, his dutiful wife Nellie Mary, placed the platter of beautiful beef on the table in front of him. After he had taken his choice share, Grandmother served the children. Grandfather filled his plate with all the side dishes. He had coffee with his meal (Grandmother would drink tea). The children basically ate in silence. They never spoke at table. To do so would have been scandalous. Grandfather, if it pleased him, might comment about something he had read in the Sunday paper. On occasion, at the opposite end of the table, having half-filled her plate with the remnants so that better portions would remain on the platters for others seeking second servings, Grandmother might timidly ask, “Is everything to your liking, Jerry?” Without making eye contact, Grandfather would grunt his reply. A simple grunt signified, “yes, it’s fine.” A growling grunt meant that he was disturbed that she had asked such an unnecessary question. The softly played sounds of utensils, plates, and glasses was the only melody He expected at meal.
No one saw it coming. It could never have been expected. But this very night, this more than 336 Sunday suppers served over 28 years, became a night of grand remembrance. Grandmother, apparently, had had enough. She certainly deserved more, anything more than the meager and condescending way that He treated her. Near the end of the meal, Grandmother, who had been sitting quietly without eating for a long time, had been staring across the table at Himself. He, too preoccupied in his own grand little world, was not aware that she had been eyeing him. The children noticed. One by one, they realized that something was different, that She was going to say something. An anticipation filled the room. The sense was a combination of terrible fear and terrible delight. No one could have known what she would say, but everyone knew that words were coming.
Finally, she spoke. “Jeremiah. I asked if everything is to your liking, and you don’t even look at me. You simply make some guttural sound, like I should be reprimanded for disturbing you while you’re hard at work filling your belly. Well, let me tell you: I’ve waited hand and foot on you for more than 28 years. I’ve kept your house clean and your children clean. I’ve scrubbed the floors and beat the carpets. I’ve tended the garden and raised your young. I’ve washed the clothes and cooked every single meal, even on the days when I gave birth to one of your babes. And in all this time, I’ve never complained….and I’m not complaining now. But you’ve never, not once, given me even the smallest word of appreciation for anything, for everything I’ve done. Do you know how much it would mean for a person who lives to give her everything for others to occasionally hear a simple “thank you?” And tonight, once again, hoping against hope, I serve you the finest meal I’m able to make, serving you on this beautiful table. And I wait. And I pray. Finally, I ask the question and wanting nothing more than to hear that yes, I’ve done something to be commended, I’ve pleased you, that I’m not just your servant, I am appreciated as your wife and mother of your children. It took so much from within for me to ask that simple question. Is everything to your liking, Jerry? Is everything to your liking?”
Grandfather sat stone-faced during her entire heart-breaking soliloquy. His look was always stern, so it was indeterminable whether he was angry or furious, whether he would stand up and shout out his authority, or simply stand up, slam his chair up to the table, and walk away. What came next surprised us thoroughly.
“I ate it, didn’t I?” he said. Very matter of fact, as if he was offering her the compliment of all ages, in a tone that was both conciliatory and sincere, Jeremiah Patrick Corrigan told his bride of 28 years, Nellie Mary Healy Corrigan, “I ate it.”
And that, as they say, is that.
Thomas Cahill reminds us that Sigmund Freud, in exasperation, once exclaimed that the Irish were the only people who could not be helped by psychoanalysis. And Cahill rightly adds, “There can be no doubt of one thing: the Irish will never change.”
Thanks be to God?