Monday, November 23, 2009


I am Irish American. Not an “Anglo,” “Whitey,” “Papist,” or a “drunken Mick.” I am descended from a long line of dead Irish people in Eire, and Ireland is in my DNA. Even though I have never been there—and will never go there—my great-grandparents brought my DNA with them when they came to America.

I never knew my great-grandfather, Anthony Callaghan from County Cork, who had the silent “g” chopped off his name at Ellis Island. My great-grandmother, the former Mary McMahon, is a different story. I celebrate my heritage through her, Gramma, and the memories I still carry of her fifty years later.

Gramma was a tiny woman, and tinier still in her 90s. But that didn’t stop her, like the good Catholic wife that she was, from birthing thirteen children, eight of whom lived. She was housebound, but never alone: the fruit she bore in turn bore two more generations, and that was a shitload of people “stopping by” to visit her.

And she loved every minute of it. And she loved every one of us, even if she didn’t remember (or know in the first place) our names. And she loved giving every one of us kids a kiss, telling God to watch over us in the beautiful accent she never lost.

About Gramma’s kisses. She gave huge, slobbery kisses just like her Golden Retriever, Paddy. Or Fluffy. Or whatever. Huge, slobbery, beery kisses because she drank. Just a glass of beer, mind you, never a bottle in sight, but there was always someone to keep her glass full. I could always tell who was kissing me by the after-odor: if it smelled like beer it was Gramma, or if it smelled like dog shit it was Paddy. Or Fluffy. Or whatever.

Well, that’s not exactly true because the two of them could fool the hell out of me. If the dog had a few laps of Gramma’s beer, or if she forgot to soak her dentures overnight, I was never sure who, or what, had just kissed me.

I didn’t really care, though, because I loved them both. I can still see her sitting in her faded blue horsehair chair, the arms covered with intricate crocheted doilies held in place with pins, a beer glass in her right hand, and always with a smile on her face.

Except, that is, on a Friday or Saturday night when everybody gathered around the upright piano in the basement for a sing-a-long. (The bar was in the basement too, and for good reason once the singing began.) We sang long and loud and off-key until my Uncle Jack took over, a fine tenor who sang in the church choir. He sang one or two Irish songs, but always finished with the one that brought tears to Gramma’s eyes: “Too-ra-loo-ra-loo-ral”.

A lullaby. Were the tears for my great-grandfather? For the five children she never got to sing for? For the Ireland she left? I believe it was all of these things as I look at her in my mind, a tired, sick, fuzzy-faced old woman who lived to be 102.

I love you still, Gramma, and I hope you went out with a smile on your face.

[This piece was inspired by Mapstew and a comment he made about his mother on Kim Ayres blog. Thanks, Map.]


Robert the Skeptic said...

My ancestry goes back to the "old sod" also. Supposedly a load of Nearys came over from County Sligo when the spuds went bad. My great grandpa was a stereotypical Irish cop, I am told. Alas, all my grandparents died before I was old enough to remember them.

I can't say I feel very much kinship with the origins of my DNA. I don't celebrate St. Patrick's Day and I don't like whiskey all that much. Still, I would like to visit Ireland some day. Perhaps with a bit-o-luck I will.

mapstew said...

Oh Charlie, I'm just home from my Auntie Bridie's wake. I'm sad, and I'm happy 'cos I spent such a fun night with me Ma! She's 84, blind, and the most fun stand-up comedian you have ever met!

We will bury Bridie tomorrow, but as is usual after an Irish funeral, we we go and celebrate the life of the one who has passed! And it wil be a long and joyfull day! (We will not be responsible for wednesday though!)

savannah said...

here's to all y'all, sugar! and all those who came before us. cheers! xoxoxo

St Jude said...

A beautifully written memoir or your gramma, she sounds like an amazing woman.

Thanks also to Mapstew for inspiring it.

Kim Ayres said...

Superbly written, Charlie - loved it :)

Pat said...

Gramma sounds grand and thanks for writing about her. Our lot came over to escape the potato famine and Gran was my biggest influence - a unique mixture of a Duchess and a fish-wife.

Fay's Too said...

Well that one made me laugh and cry. My Papa used to sing too ra loo rah to us and in fact, we had it sung at his funeral.
You've a fine Irish heritage (mackeral snapper) and have a right to be proud. Let's go to the old country and raise a pint or six to our grandparents!

Charlie said...

ROBERT: It used to be that Irish Americans became one of the three "P"s: priest, policeman, or politician. At least it got them out of the slave work of coal mining and building railroads.

MAP: That is as it should be: a celebration of a life well remembered.

SAVANNAH: I suspect you had some wonderful ancestors, wherever they may be.

Charlie said...

ST JUDE & KIM: Thank you both, two of my best and longest friends.

PAT: a unique mixture of a Duchess and a fish-wife.. Beautifully said and I'm sure very true.

FAY: Let's raise one for our ancestors all the way back before the Church took over--truly the worst thing that ever happened to Ireland.

Stinkypaw said...

Lovely tribute to this tiny woman who obviously had lots of personality. Nice job!

koonsmother said...

A lovely tribute, altogether, Charlie lad.

Barbara Bruederlin said...

What a lovely story! I am envious of you for having a large family and especially a gramma who gave kisses.

My parents were both immigrants and I only met one of my grandfathers. I always felt like I missed out on something.

Tiffin said...

Aw Charlie, this one tugged at my heart. I loved my Grandma too, a wee Scottish lady with the heart of a lion. Weren't we the lucky ones, to have such wonderful grans?

Meg said...

That was a lovely tribute, Charlie. That's neat that you can trace your roots back like that, too.

Charlie said...

STINKY & KOONS: Hmm. Sounds like an old vaudeville act, or maybe a law firm.

Nevertheless, thank you both for the kudos.

BARBARA: Canada is a big melting pot too, but I've never heard it called that.

The immigrants were tough, desperate people, and I suspect kisses were at a premium. I was lucky.

TUI: Yes, we were. I know that you have a wee bit of family heritage, but what I told Barbara applies to you too.

MEG: I really didn't do any tracing—my great-grandmother was there in the flesh. I've never traced any further back to the roots in Ireland.

kara said...

three cheers to us and our pasty, non-tannable selves!

and my dad may not like whiskey, but his daughter damn well does. mebbe it skips a generation.

Jimmy Bastard said...

Charlie, I often wonder why so many Americans always like to have a joint identity. I'm no being rude here, but if Amerikay is as good as the continued boasts that Hollywood crams down our throats, why the need for the auld dual identity?

I'm Irish by birth, but I was raised in Glesga since I was a bairn, but I'm Scottish, no Scots-Irish.

Seriously, is it a pride thing? I'm curious.

Tiffin said...

Charlie, we weren't a melting pot because we didn't melt (and not because of the cold). We didn't become a nation until 1867 so we were late bloomers. (We didn't get our papers from the Queen until the Trudeau era!) But we've always kind of celebrated our little pockets of distinctness - which, of course, when the Government tried to turn a fact into a government policy, failed dismally. On Canada Day, the Irish clog dancers will clog, the Scottish dancers will skirl, the Polish dancers will twirl and we'll all go eat boiled cabbage, haggis and perogies together. We're a stew, we're all in the pot together, but you can pick out the parts.

Jimmy, I suspect it's because we're all immigrants here, unless you are an indigenous person. It's an acknowledgement that the early (and often deep) roots are elsewhere. Mom's family came from Scotland (with a few from Cork) in the 1820-1880s but my Dad was a Scot.

Jimmy Bastard said...

I see, thanks for that, it goes a long way in explaining things more clearly for me.

I always say, if you don't ask... you don't know.

Charlie said...

JIMMY: The only true Americans are the Indians, who have lived here for centuries. All the rest of us are American by being born within its borders, but we still identify with our immigrant forbearers and their culture, who have been here for 200 years or less.

While we share many attributes as "Americans" (like Thanksgiving Day), we are still nationality-oriented. Little Italy in New York. "Southie" in Boston, which is the Irish equivalent to Glasgow. Scandanavians and Germans in the Midwest. The list goes on.

Give us another 500 years and we might all be assimilated into just plain old Americans.

Charlie said...

KARA: I didn't forget you—I'm just out of order, that's all.

My paste is covered with freckles, so I'm a burner, not a tanner.

Your dad may not like whiskey, but he does okay with rum for catching household insects.

TUI: Thanks for your explanation, and I know I duplicated some of it.

I use the term "melting pot" to refer to cross-nationality marriages: a Scot with a German, or a Pole with a Brit. In this context, Canada qualifies.

Do you really eat haggis?

Tiffin said...

Charlie, lets just say I don't seek it out but if cornered on Burns Day, I'll mix it in with the tatties and neeps.

Jimmy Bastard said...

Well that's cleared that up nicely, thank's to you both.