Out with the Auld
In Ireland, they’re raising toasts to newfound gentrification. Meanwhile, the Boston Irish are suffering an identify crisis and gearing up for another depressingly prim St. Pat’s Day.
One evening last November, supporters of the American Ireland Fund got together to celebrate the 25th anniversary of its Boston chapter. On hand to fete the organization, which over its history has raked in a total of $300 million for various causes in Ireland and Northern Ireland, was a host of Irish-American luminaries, including Herald publisher Pat Purcell, aspiring Globe publisher Jack Connors, and the evil Mike Barnicle. By the end of the night, $2 million had been raised to build an integrated school in Northern Ireland—an accomplishment freighted with visions of Catholic and Protestant kids skipping down the Falls Road in Belfast, hand in hand, without fear of getting their kneecaps bashed asunder with a hurley stick.
All in all, the event was considered a big success. Only it wasn’t. Sure, it may have been just dandy for the multifaith schoolchildren of Northern Ireland, but it was another sign of trouble here. See, even as Ireland is on the up, Irish Boston is fading. And with every passing St. Patrick’s Day, I become more convinced that the two are connected.
What do you think of when you think of the Irish? Humble farmers with creased faces, working the peat day and night, pausing only to drain a pint of stout and make wistful poetical utterances? Rebels fighting tirelessly day and night to retake the Four Fields from the cruel British, pausing only to drain a pint of stout and make wistful poetical utterances? The simian Stage Irishman? Michael Flatley? Michael Collins? Lucky the Leprechaun?
Probably a combination of the above. There’s always been the wit, the song, the drinking, the fighting, the sense of oppression, the fierce pride. And the drinking. And the fighting. The problem with the way we Irish Bostonians have related to our heritage, though, is the problem with all nostalgia: It’s blarney. As my old Irish studies professor Jim Murphy told me, “People from America looking to find the Ireland of their imagination are going to be hard-pressed to find it.”
In Boston, in fact, the Ireland of our imagination is all we’ve ever really had. Oscar Handlin’s landmark book, Boston’s Immigrants, has 19th-century Irish Americans referring to their homeland as the “bright gem of the sea,” as if it were some kind of verdant utopia and not the reeking mass grave they’d just risked their lives trying to get the hell away from. Later, when the Boston Irish started making some money, they helped fund the rebels of the Easter Rising, who were resisting the awesome might of the British Empire armed with apparently little more than pitchforks, potatoes, and banter. (We also had a vague notion that it rained a lot over there.)
We’re still suffering from the same sentimental afflictions. A quick look at the T ads from Irish tour operators, full of stony green fields and beaming colleens in step dancing outfits, suggests that the Irish themselves cynically recognize that America continues to view their country in The Quiet Man terms: You fly in, hoist a pint, dance a jig, get punched in the face, hoist another pint, dance another jig, then go to a stone church somewhere to unload your sins onto a wistfully poetical priest who’s got a faint hum of whiskey about him. Come Sunday, the same priest will minister to a congregation of ruddy-faced redheads, the men’s pressed trousers hiding the sod marks on their knees.
And when they laugh, ’tis like the singing of the angels themselves.
The reality, of course, is that Ireland’s kicking the crap out of us right now. The country enjoys the third highest per capita GDP in Europe and the eighth highest in the world (the United States is ninth). The Irish unemployment rate is 4.3 percent (Massachusetts is at 5.3 percent). Ireland sends more than twice as many kids to college as this country does. In Dublin, skyrocketing property values are pushing out true Dubs and attracting affluent high-tech workers and jive plastic nightclub impresarios. The city has also seen a huge influx of immigrants. The second most spoken language in Ireland is Chinese; Polish is third. Convenience stores catering to African tastes are popping up left and right.
Not everyone in Ireland is happy about all this. “I’d say the most annoying thing for me is the lack of decent post-pub fast food,” says James Buick, a friend of mine who lives in Dublin. “I guess the traditional Irish beer-soaking remedy of fish and chips has been gradually replaced. A kebab is fair enough, but it seems the chip shops close early, so if you want some nice, healthy battered cod at 2 a.m. you’re stuck. However, should your tastes run to sun-dried tomatoes with salami and hummus, or some similar artsy-fartsy shit, you’re well served.” It’s an indication of Ireland’s progress that James’s laments are largely limited to the paucity of reliable fried-cod purveyors. It wasn’t that long ago he’d have been more consumed with car bombings and assassinations.
A peaceful, prosperous Ireland has an effect on the Boston Irish, too, and the way we view ourselves. The notion of Ireland as an underdog poet-warrior of a country, a nation in the grips of a battle against what Billy Bulger memorably called “the pale towers of Yankee Babylon,” has long served to unite Irish Bostonians. It’s what used to give us our edge. Over the years, though, as the hard-knuckled, sharp-tongued, gleefully disreputable Irish Bostonians went from oppressed minority to ruling class—beginning in earnest with the rise of Irish-Catholic mayors Hugh O’Brien, Patrick Collins, John “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald, and noted scoundrel James Michael Curley—our sense of Irishness began to devolve into a nostalgic, drink-besotted id. “Kiss Me I’m Irish” pins hit the scene. Green beer flowed. And on the streets of Southie, the old St. Pat’s bromide “Today, everybody’s Irish” basically came to mean “Today, everybody’s plastered…and, hey, that guy just threw a brick at a lesbian!”
Now, with the auld sod having gone yuppie and taken with it the last of the romantic stereotypes we’ve always nurtured, what’s left of Boston’s Irish identity is shakier than ever. The St. Pat’s parade—which if anything these days feels more like a Flag Day parade in Boca Raton—is increasingly attended by people disinclined to swill several gallons of green beer pirated in Dunkin’ Donuts cups and fall down the stairs at the Broadway station. Those who do still go that route face cops who no longer look the other way and the teetotaling efforts of the South Boston Action Center and its odious alcohol-free family zone. (Said one clearly confused twentysomething to the Globe in ’05, describing the festivities, “I feel like it’s quieter than I expected.”) Other measures of our Irishness are down, too. Shamrock tattoos are becoming scarcer and scarcer. Traditional Irish pubs are closing their doors. The Celtics blow. Even the vaunted wit of the St. Patrick’s Day Breakfast has gone dull. It’s as if we woke up one morning and discovered we were French.
I’m not saying a return to the days of an impoverished, oppressed Ireland would be a good thing, although it would certainly restore some much needed oomph to our flagging St. Pat’s bacchanalia. But if the Irish stubbornly refuse to revert to their old ways of song, dance, and potatoes that turn to toxic mud in your hands, then we’re going to have to make a few adjustments to our relationship, just to even things out a bit and reflect the reality on the ground.
The American Ireland Fund, for starters, should be abolished. In its place, someone in Dublin should form an Irish America Fund, which can host black-tie galas to raise money for Boston’s public schools. Meanwhile, just so we’re not perceived as total charity cases, we’ll ship my favorite piece of statuary, the Boston Irish Famine Memorial, over to Ireland in a crate with no return address so they can melt it down and have it cast into something more fitting—the Boston Handgun Memorial, say. Or better yet, a statue of an impoverished, uneducated American, braving those brutal Aer Lingus coach seats, on his way to make a go of it in the new land of opportunity.