Volume 16 • Issue 41 | March 12 - 18, 2004


St. Patrick reflections now that I’m Irish-American

By Alphie McCourt

I loved Saint Patrick’s Day when I was growing up. I haven’t always loved Saint Patrick’s Day in New York. Too many people, professional Irishmen among them, use the day as an excuse to get drunk. The parade itself is spectacular, the music stirring and the school children are joyful, full of enthusiasm, stepping proudly up Fifth Avenue.

Early in the fifth century, Saint Patrick was brought to Ireland as a slave. By 1832, according to William Styron, in his book on Nat Turner, the slaves of Virginia were better housed and better fed than were the peasants of Ireland and England. Only 1,300 years separated the Irish from owning slaves to being, themselves, enslaved.

In this leap year we will elect a new president and this year, for the first time, I can say “we.” After many years of living in the United States, even as a Vietnam-era veteran, I am a citizen, sworn in this Jan. 16. Why so long? That’s a story for another time. Sometimes, early in the morning, as I prepare to go to work, it comes to me: “I am a citizen.”

I can’t explain the feeling. I suppose that becoming a citizen feels so good because I’ve been living the faith for so long that it is part of me. Now I can profess it without being contradicted. Yes, I swore allegiance on Jan. 16. And I had sworn allegiance many years before. I could have sworn allegiance when I was a boy. I always knew that I would come here.

So I don’t have to change my belief in order to become fully of the faith, to be legitimate. No conversion is necessary. That’s good. I don’t trust converts. Too often they become zealots. I don’t care for zealots: born-again Christians, right-wing Catholics, Jewish extremists or Islamic fundamentalists. But I do argue in favor of the essential goodness of the great religions.

Sometimes, though not a practicing Catholic, I complain that Catholicism has strayed too far from Christianity, that the Church has lost the true spirit of Christianity and is interested, solely, in self-preservation and promotion. Lynn, my wife, from her Jewish perspective, has heard this diatribe before. Patient she is but sometimes she can’t resist. “Anyway, your Lord was one of us,” she will say, quietly and with an impish grin. “And so was His mother.” I can’t argue that.

And, over the years, in the middle of a heated political argument, Lynn would remind me of my status. With a wicked chuckle she would say, “Why are you getting so hot? You’re not even a citizen. If you feel so strongly why don’t you become a citizen and vote? That’s what you should do.” She knew why I hadn’t done it but she couldn’t resist the chance to score a point. I could only assert my belief in the essence of Democracy and tell her that in the United States, my freedom of speech is guaranteed. But that was a poor argument.

Jesus was Jewish and so was his mother. Even my becoming a citizen doesn’t change that. And who would want to? Lynn still holds those two cards. But, now that I am a citizen, she can no longer shoot me down in the middle of a political argument. My citizenship has taken away half of her ammunition.

Recently I received a further seal of approval. I was invited, by the Mulholland family, to attend the 50-year anniversary showing of the movie, “Shane,” at Lincoln Center. I first saw it when I was 13. Somewhere, somehow, my friends and I found mouth organs. For months after seeing the movie, we played our mouth organs, some well, some not so well. But we all played it, the theme from the movie. And sang the words, “Hear the call of the prairie.” Lingering, haunting, the tune was always just ahead, or trailing behind us, waiting, around every corner, above us and below, in the streets and lanes of Limerick.

My father had always been gone and all my brothers had departed for the United States. Well versed I was, in saying goodbye. “Shane, come back Shane.” I knew it well. I hadn’t seen Shane since that first time. I couldn’t watch it on TV. I waited for it to come round. The other night it came round.

At the end I cried. Men don’t cry but I couldn’t help myself. Furtively I wiped away tears. The lights went up and a man approached me. “You look familiar” he said and introduced himself. “Did you like the movie?”

“Yes, I did.”

In my choked-up state, my state of verbal constipation, I couldn’t talk, didn’t want to talk. Talking would take away the mood, the remembering. Talking would separate me from my brief communion with the boy I had been and with the boys who had been my friends and talking would shatter the illusion.

In “Shane” the men were heroic; their behavior was the gold standard for heroism. That was how men should be. Jack Palance was the most menacing bad guy that ever was. Sibilant in speech, he was even more sinuous in his movements. Sibilant, sinuous and evil though he was, even he had his moment. In the end he stood up, stood, out in the open. Like a man he faced the man who would kill him.

We worshipped gunfighters, their courage, their speed and, above all, their straight-shooting ways. Seeing “Shane” again brought it all together: boyhood, manhood and, now, full citizenship, all on the eve of Saint Patrick’s Day.

And Saint Patrick’s Day will often prompt a discussion of ancestry and family antecedents. One evening, at a gathering in New York, the subject of ancestry came up. To begin with, the man had been obnoxious and condescending. Smug and self-satisfied, he had boasted, “My family came here in 1792. We go back. Heh, heh, do we go back.”

“That’s good. I’m impressed.”

“You know, my family ran the saloon on the Mayflower,” I told him.

“But there was no saloon on the Mayflower,” he protested.

“Oh yeah? That’s what you think. Little do you know about your ancestors’ ancestors.”

Perplexed, he shook his head and walked away.

The next boor won’t bother me as much. This year I will celebrate Saint Patrick’s Day as a citizen of the United States. And I am more aware than ever that Saint Patrick does not belong exclusively to Catholics. As the patron saint of all of Ireland, he could gather Catholics and Protestants together, under his flag. But they won’t march.

Last week, in the course of my workday, I boarded an elevator. There were already a few people on the elevator. One of the women I knew by sight. “So, how’s your brother?” she asked, referring, as many people do, to my brother Frank, the most eminent of my three older brothers.

“He’s fine,” I said. “I spoke to him a few days ago. He is going to Israel.”

“Oh, did he marry a Jewish girl?” she asked.

“No,” I said. “I did.”

She chewed on the logic of that for about thirty seconds. “He’s going to Israel to speak to Palestinian youth,” I told her. “He plans to convert them to Irish Catholicism. He’s bringing them over here to march in the Saint Patrick’s Day Parade. Just to simplify matters.”

The other people laughed. “Get outta here” said the woman.

“I will,” said I. The elevator door opened. And I got out of there.

Then there is the question of gay and lesbian participation. There may be a better chance that gays and lesbians will march in the parade than that Catholics and Protestants will ever be united. Is the religious divide greater, wider, deeper, than the sexual divide? Who knows? Maybe they will compromise and open the parade to gays and lesbians. As long as they are Catholics, of course. Or maybe they’ll give up marching and take up dancing. Instead.

It will all work out, now that I’ve arrived. And the only thing that would even come close to being a citizen of the United States would be to hold citizenship of Brooklyn. I’m working on it. Just give me time.


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