Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Those smiling Irish eyes


You don't have to really believe in angels to believe in them, so with St. Patrick's Day just around the bend, I've been wondering how it goes up there. Do angels flap their wings when they take off? It's hard to imagine all the flapping—I'm thinking wings are a status symbol, and when they want to fly they have a hang-around-the-neck panel with jet-burst buttons, and they punch the button for straight up, and then punch left or right buttons so they can move about upright as had been their custom, only faster now, like kids with ball-bearing shoes.

But not on St. Patrick's Day. Then all the angels, at least all the Irish angels, press the special button marked "freestyle," so they can catapult end-over-end across the heavens with manic joy. And should more staid heavenly hosts cast disapproving stares it only makes them giggle.

It's no stretch for me to conjure angels stirring things up on St. Patrick's Day because our mother raised us—my two younger sisters and me—to believe that that's what it was for. Before she became an angel herself—so long ago now I've passed her up and am now old enough to be my mother's mother—she performed an earthly version of catapulting down here. And in her honor, every St. Patrick's Day I run an old reel I'll share with you. I'm going to try for full disclosure, not try to pass us off as genteel Irish—two words that don't belong together.

We kids would be still snug in our beds when—Bam!—in marched mother belting out the song she waited all year to sing. I doubt it's Irish, but Mother ranked it ahead of "My Wild Irish Rose" and "Danny Boy" and all the ballads rightfully hers as the daughter of parents just off the boat from County Cork—all those wonderful ballads that get your emotions zinging from sweet joy to pain, like a dagger in the heart.

With Mother's song you don't even have to know the tune to get your own feet tapping. Here it is: "Give me some men who are stout-hearted men who will fight for the right they adore. Start me with ten who are stout-hearted men and I'll soon give you ten thousand more."

See what I mean?

After "Stout-Hearted Men," Mother's repertoire proceeded almost sedately, and it turned breakfast into a nostalgic musical rather than the usual one of quiet attention to our oatmeal. And, on special occasions like St. Pat's Day, we got toast made from bought-at-the-store white bread for 10 cents a loaf and already sliced. Hmmmm ... yummy.

After school, we'd run up the porch steps to a house filled with still-gathering celebrants, and in the kitchen—the party room—smack in the middle of the table was the crock used solely for Mother's brewed-in-the-basement beer. And renowned beer it was—on Sundays after Mass, a few pews-full of Murphys and O'Sullivans and any with like-blessed names came over to share a crock or two—but on St. Patrick's Day it'd be for crocks enough to keep all tonsils wet for the big sing-along. The ballads were sung eight, ten, probably dozens of times, and every time it got back to "Danny Boy," when everyone got teary, one or another Paddy Finnigan shouted the toast of the day—"Hear, hear, nobody makes better beer than Mary Weir!"—and that made everyone jolly again.

Mother's home brew was as miraculously plentiful as that biblical wine at that biblical wedding. The beer was never allowed to get so low in the crock that celebrants couldn't bend over, tip the crock a bit and take a long draw. And when they straightened up and had foam mustaches beneath their noses they brushed them away—maybe even genteelly brushed them away. Father O'Reilly was always there, and he'd be still in his collar, but after a few dips and sips it wouldn't be so intimidating with a mustache under his nose. We kids got in a few furtive dips and sips too, and if we had mustaches were much too pleased to brush them away.

As I came of age, or close enough, I carried on tradition with a slightly different script. By my time, Prohibition was a miserable experiment over and done with, though, alas, along with its demise went an exhilarating sense of living on the edge when our house turned into a little house on the prairie far removed from Carrie Nation and Prohibition and moderation in all things.

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