It's hard to imagine 20 years have passed since we sat together with our friend Fred, who died of AIDS about fifteen years ago, discussing the television news coverage of ILGO's (Irish Gay and Lesbian Organization) attempt to join New York City's St. Patrick's Day parade. "What's with those people talking to press on camera?" he asked. "Aren't they afraid? Aren't they afraid people will find out? That they're --
Fred, an Irish-American gay guy, could say that.
Twenty years later, the Ancient Order of Hibernians perseveres in this bigotry, but I find I wish to keep on fighting (like the Irish) to make or keep St. Patrick's Day somehow holy.
My memories of St. Patrick's Day in New York do not revolve whoozily around Guinness and Jameson, although both have been on hand. The day conjures the stinking cruciferous vegetable, boiled meat, damp Aran wool, bagpipes keening on Channel 11, sharp-looking firemen in dress uniforms with black hair and pink cheeks congregating, flirtatious, post-parade, in 2nd Avenue gin-mill doorways. One never knows, on St. Patrick's Day, what the season will seem to be when the day falls. Whether snow or sunburn.
My grandmother, Mary Madigan, born in 1900 in County Mayo, lived the second half of her life in a 4th floor railroad flat on East 73rd in Manhattan not far from the parade route. For more than four decades, her New York kith and kin would drop by on St. Patrick's Day after checking out the over-long parade. My Irish twin, Scott, and I used to go together. Each wore green but he was more stylish in this; he wore a Donegal cap and fisherman's sweater, whereas I, favoring sawed-off T-shirt with epithets relating to the pontiff or British queen thereupon emblazoned, adopted a more pogue ma thóin approach. One year our brother Gregg appeared with shamrock shaved out of his buzz-cut hair. Our grandmother greeted him not with the usual "Erin Go Bragh" but with "Did ye lose yer bloody job?" but he was boss enough, by then, to keep his job, even with the saint's symbol for the trinity carved into his coif.
Mary Madigan worked as a lace-maker before coming to New York, at the age of 25 in 1925. Once here, she worked as a maid, fell in love with a Limerick lad from the dance halls, and raised a brood in St. Rose of Lima (which the Irish pronounced like the bean) parish uptown. Every year, on March 17th, I wear the Kelly green beret she crocheted for me 35 years ago.
I'll wear it to morning mass on St. Patrick's Day, and maybe to the tea party at the rectory after, where, if "the luck of the Irish" is mine, I'll enjoy cracking wise (in keeping with decade-old custom) for a spell with the 80-something McCann girls, who descend, as do I, from Mayo. Our former pastor, a foodie, used to bake soda bread for this gathering -- Begorrah! How the church ladies would go on about the bread ("himself") "Fhahther" had made. You'd think the Lord and Savior had slid down a rainbow to toss in the caraway seeds.
In recent years, we've thrown a few good house parties, with Irish poetry, music, Guinness, stir-fried cabbage, soda bread, lamb stew, boiled meat, salmon on black bread and -- last time around -- a green cake in the shape of a shamrock. With the help of green confections (and, one year, shamrock-shaped macaroni) I've passed a wee bit of St. Patrick's Day on to my children. I'm not sure when my Ashkenazi Jewish husband informed me early in our relationship that he'd been dubbed an "honorary Irishman" by lads with the surnames "Gallagher" and "Clifford" whether he was warning me or pitching me -- but marriage did make it official. However, a thousand Irish wives more persuasive than I could never shake his belief that boiling a perfectly good brisket is not a sin.
Even in the wake (so to speak) of Order of Ancient Hibernian homophobia, I've taken my children to the parade thinking it (in all its splendor and hideousness) part of their heritage as New York Irish Jews. Nine years ago the pastor of a Brooklyn church I had just begun to attend invited a local Gay and Lesbian Catholic group (which had been shunned by the parade's marshal) to march with our parish. I never imagined my husband might consent to walk in any parade, much less behind a Catholic banner in St. Patrick's honor. But there I saw him, crossing Union with our trinity of toddlers in tow, just ahead of the lavender and rainbow banner.
Last night I made soda bread using Mary Madigan's recipe. As I worked alone in the kitchen, I found myself singing the grim and exquisite lyrics to The Minstrel Boy as Joe Strummer's epic instrumental version played: ambient strains suitable for luxuriating in Irish sorrow.
It may be resolutely Irish to point out that with my grandmother, mother, and brother Scott all "gone home" as the Irish sometimes call it, St. Patrick's Day is bittersweet.
To the Irish, "home" means two things: the beloved place we leave, and the Heaven for which we wait.
This St. Patrick's day, all my Irish dead will line up behind my friend Maureen the artist.
Last year, smack in the middle of a cruelly vernal St. Patrick's Day, Maureen, a brilliant painter and master teacher, died at the age of 48 after fighting, like the Irish, the cancer that fuelled her valor and claimed her body. We were friends for 25 years. She was my sister in culture, faith and art. She's gone ("home") but she's here too, "homing" in those she loves. The two of us spent much of her last year together enjoying what the Irish call great craick (great times) in hospital waiting rooms and chemo suites.
Though not ethnic Irish, Maureen was as Irish as anyone I've ever known. She was adopted as an infant and raised by powerfully honorable and loving Irish-American parents just outside of Boston. She was a stubborn Catholic believer. In her last year, she claimed to have found healing (this, as a cure eluded her) while sitting at her dying mother's kitchen table with her sister and the others she described as "the Irish ladies." (They weren't all "technically" Irish, but they shared a dark, light way of looking at suffering that lent Maureen a sustaining boost.) A progressive and intellectual, Maureen had her grievances with "the Church" and the American Irish politic, but she loved us, and was on board with some true version of heading "home."
As I helped with her "arrangements" last St. Patrick's Day, working side by side with the heroic sister whose name day it was, I was dogged by a sense that the timing of Maureen's death was some kind of Irish joke on her part, perhaps designed to take the edge off. I had the feeling Maureen was snickering devilishly, defiantly -- I had to smile in the face of this. I rushed from her wake to host an annual spoken word, Irish-themed event called "Blarneypalooza" the next day. Never had lyricism so comforted me.
Blarneypalooza takes place each March in the historic Old Stone House, in Brooklyn. For the first time, Blarneypalooza will take place on St. Patrick's Day. Non-Irish, non-poet futurist and situationist Larry Honig will unleash God only knows what gifts of genius gab. Playwright and poet Pat Smith will recite his elegant, sophisticated verse on his saint's day. Poet, writer, editor Barbara O'Dair -- a Molly with a pinch of Bridget thrown in -- will read salty verse. Poet Lynn McGee will read about an Irish love, an Irish bar, and an Irish death. Poet and professor Mike Sweeney, author of In Memory of the Fast Break will come out fighting (Irish) to land syllabic crosses via a gorgeous epic poem about fighting clean in a dirty arena, Octagon:
Once you fall in the octagon they strike up a serenade of Come On Up to the House
Once you fall in the octagon they dangle your bleeding scalp over the padded rail...
Once you fall in the octagon they hose off your DNA
Once you fall in the octagon you're done with cartilage grafts & tracheotomies
Once you fall in the octagon they throw a green funeral & air out your gunny sack
As for me, I'll read a poem about my wild Irish muse, Maureen.