I was emailing back and forth with an ex of mine recently (I am, in fact, friends with a couple of these fellows, despite the fact that they, by and large, had every reason to completely cut me adrift). I’m not even sure what prompted the “conversation” (probably an invitation to see a show), but at some point I mentioned the series of seemingly miraculous interventions that enabled me to survive my twenties without, you know, dying. And he said something like: “us micks are made of strong stuff.”
I have mixed feelings about that.
I was brought up in an “Irish Catholic” household. In terms of my heritage, I have been taught to identify chiefly as coming from “Irish” stock (and on paper, that would be hard to dispute: I am the product of a McColgan married to a Flaherty, who in turn wouldn’t have come about if a Flaherty hadn’t been married to a Coyle). Going back another couple of generations yields the surnames Daley and Dorsey.
Now, I must needs confess that German and Dutch are also in my personal mix (Wirth on my mother’s side; Janse on my father’s). And yet not much fuss was ever made about that; we were, at turns, “Irish Catholic,” “Boston Irish,” and the sneering “Two Toilet Irish,” when my family moved from the city proper to a suburb south of Boston (an area known as the “Irish Riviera”) and eventually obtained a house with two bathrooms.
Culturally, we’re taught that as “Irish,” we are supposed to be loyal, hot-headed, creative. And, apparently, drunk.
To boot, we’re also supposed to be able to endure that heady mix of temper and perpetual intoxication. Hence, my ex giving me a verbal chuck-on-the-chin by telling me that I lived to tell about my decade-long bout of self-destructive behavior because I am genetically predisposed to survival, as much as I am also genetically predisposed to alcoholism.
Drinking is the arguable birthright of anyone coming into the world with even an infinitesimal fraction of “Irish blood.” You’re expected to drink, and to fight, because the history of colonialism, poverty, starvation, and persecution has embedded itself into your cultural DNA. But on the flip side, you’re not supposed to talk about it if it becomes a problem. Stoicism. Shame.
Even when I was still drinking, I avoided St. Patrick’s Day revelry. Even as I began to feel the cold, damp grip of my addiction preparing to yank me into the depths of hopelessness and desperation, I was unwilling to participate in the ritual of deliberate public inebriation, trimmed with shamrocks. I suspected, even as I drank alone at home, that perpetuating that stereotype was none too smart. It certainly wasn’t anything that I held dear, at the end, when I’d lie in bed at 3 o’clock in the morning thinking about dying. I wasn’t thinking so much of suicide as I was realizing that if I just, well, died somehow, it wouldn’t be the worst thing.
And yet I get it. On the surface, it’s funny. I still joke about it. A friend of mine posted a picture on Facebook not too long ago, of a bunch of girls in green tshirts passed out in various improbable positions above the caption “IRISH YOGA.” She tagged me and my friend Niamh (born in Ireland, not a “plastic paddy” like myself) and asked, “So is this accurate?” And I scanned the picture and made note of a partially finished pint of Guinness and replied, “An unfinished drink on the dresser? Hardly.”
But then I think, “Aren’t I still willingly contributing to the stereotype by joking about it?” I joke about it, in part, because this is something else I’ve been programmed to do. The Irish joke about terrible things, casting our misfortune in a darkly humorous light, because that’s the way, isn’t it? Example – my father is a twin. He survived birth while his twin did not. Nobody really talks about this, other than to tell this joke (typically at wakes): “Sure, Johnny was a twin. Ma had a boy and a turd. The boy died.” My friendship with Niamh, as long and as deep as it is, is peppered with insults. Tinker. Knacker. Scrubber. It’s how we communicate. We see nothing disrespectful about it.
And so I struggle with this idea that I am supposed to be these things, that I am supposed to accept that I am these things because of genetics and culture and the counties where my Nana and Pa were born. I survived my alcoholism for the very same reason I became an alcoholic? I don’t know.
As Americans of Irish descent, we cling to these ideas of who we are, I think, because we fear a lack of identity. We wear the Aran sweaters and affix the reproductions of vintage Guinness advertisements to our walls and tell jokes on ourselves. And a lot of us drink. And a lot of us drink too much. Some of us survive that slow and steady poisoning of our bodies and spirits. But some of us don’t.
I let it go at the time, the comment about being made of strong stuff. I don’t know that I am. I’m not strong. I’m lucky. Luck of the Irish? Jury’s still out.