Writing about the Irish is no joke.
Your preparation for it depends upon where you were as a child on celebratory feast days like Easter Sunday and Christmas. In my case, that would be the kitchen where, in my experience, all the action was. Irish men frequently have low conversational skills, despite their reputation for being braggarts, humorists, and classic liars. That reputation is often more a literary thing than a reality, even though I have to admit that my own grandfather, M.J. Brennan, was a classic storyteller, especially when women were present. But his wife Doll was even more of one, as was my mother Alice Brennan Clarke. The two of them egged him on, I believe.
Conversation in the kitchen during the preparation for the meals for those days was stellar and thoroughly enlivening. It also lasted all day. The men in the living room talked about politics, the church, golf and football, and only occasionally broke into noisy laughter. Their laughter almost never gleamed, conversational sparkle being an apparent anathema among the men. The women in the kitchen, though, were very humorous from the get-go, and their laughter would be sustained for quite a while, particularly as Doll and Alice got going.
I learned everything I know about how to write and tell a story in the kitchens of my mother and my grandmother, although I did get a little extra help from Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Frank O'Connor and some others. Also, with regard to the Irish, everything I've said here is predicated upon the family in question being American Irish, which is the case in my case.
As any real Irishman who has met one of his American counterparts will tell you, the Americans are different. The American Irish seldom use their accent to elaborate a story or to make it pleasing. Their voices do not rise or lower; rather they follow a steady, straight course across a flat desert, somewhat like a highway in Nevada. The Americans also slur their speech. Like other Americans, they speak something that is clearly English, although the nuances of which that language is capable seldom make an appearance. They do not finish pronouncing the full word, rather cut it off and hurry on to the next, of which they also mutter only a fractured portion. They do talk an awful lot about golf... as well as the NFL, the National Rifle Association and how it is so ravaged by the noisy cowardice of those nasty liberals, the mechanical workings of automobiles and, in more recent years, of off-road vehicles. A lot about lawn mowers, the Apple vs. the Mac, apps, shotguns, how to get along with your wife, dogs, fishin' and huntin', ungrateful children.
I've met Irish Irishmen whose speech lilts a great deal more than that of Americans, who are capable of sustained good humor and even outrageous hilarity. My grandfather was, too, and he got better the older he got, even into his last year, his ninety-seventh. The usual subject of his conversation was business, or "bidness," as he phrased it. He was in "retail" all his life, the only person I ever met who could make talk about merchandising fun.
Indeed, what I'm describing -- the boredom and close-mouthed sequestering of any information of interest -- may well be more an All-American trait than anything else. It seems usually to be the case at almost any social gathering in living rooms in the United States. If you have cocktails with entrepreneurs and corporate leaders in this country, as I sometimes do, you also get a lot of self-important, close-to-the-vest (what my mother used to call "Protestant") muttering about investments and what should be done to protect them from the clutches of socialists like Barack Obama and his cronies, either within the clearly wealth-skewed tax structure in the United States or within those of various helpful islands offshore in the Caribbean. I have been to many cocktail parties in my country, and you may be shocked to hear this about The Land of The Free, but, among the men I know, there is an awful lot of such resentful twaddle. Hardly hilarious at all.
As a child I did not realize that so much of my female relatives' humor and conversational excellence in the kitchen came from the Irish. I thought that the laughter-inducing idiomatic expressions and sudden, unexpected turns of speech that so freely came from the women were the way that all women talked, and I loved it. Only when I arrived at the university in Berkeley and eventually began reading the Irish writers did I come to understand that that kitchen-based speech was part of an ethnic stream, and that my knowledge of it came from the usual direct source of ethnic memory... women. I wager that that's where most of those writers got it as well. My mother and I used to talk about this quite a bit, and when it came to the men in the living room and their tight-lipped complaining, we were never sure whose eyes rolled more... hers or mine.
Of course, my mother preferred the kitchen, too. She ran the place.
There hasn't been a lot of fiction written about the differences between the Irish Irish and the Irish Americans. It's worth writing about them, though, because despite what I've just written, the American Irish are pretty amazing in what they have done since arriviste British politics and the failure of potatoes drove them out of their own country some years ago. I wrote a novel twenty years ago -- My Father In The Night -- that I learned from reviews is one of the very few books of fiction ever written about the Irish in San Francisco. It's a long and rich history, which is still going on, although basically I was writing from speech and anecdotes that I had heard as a child on the mornings of Christmas and Easter. My new book of stories, Little Bridget And The Flames of Hell, has just been published, with a similar thematic slant (the Irish in contemporary San Francisco), and I hope that all those women who taught me that speech are looking down on me with pleased expressions and recollections that he always spoke well, that Terry... he's got the gift in him, doesn't he? And funny! Did you hear what he just said?
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