When I was growing up, my uncle Pat (his name changed here) was the family lush on the Irish side (we grew up pretty much half Italian/half Irish, though my Irish father also had French and Russian on is side, hence the surname). The “lush on the Irish side” may seem redundant, but someone has to take the top spot. Pat is still with us. He is actually my father’s cousin and the big brother my dad never had. Pat took dad to his first Brooklyn Dodgers game at Ebbet’s Field, which was more or a less life-forming event for my father and, by extension, subsequent generations, who could never root for the Yankees, lest they fall over to the Italian side with his Italian father in-law.
In suburban NY, we had a lot of Italian and Irish kids, or some combo thereof. It was a constant war of influence with my parents’ two sides:
“No, you’re Irish. Here, wear this ‘Kiss Me, I’m Irish button.”
“No, have this cannoli. Can your Irish relatives make pastries like this?”
“What color is your hair? And you think you’re Italian? Don’t believe ’em.”
When I was in 1st grade, on Columbus Day, the Italians’ chance to reply with pride and dignity to the Bacchanalia of St. Paddy’s Day, a teacher asked all of us who were Italian to raise our hands. My mother’s voice echoing in my head (“you’re Italian”), I raised my hand. My teacher told me dismissively to lower it. She could plainly see by my pale skin and orange hair that I was not Italian. Plus, my name is Janovitz, whatever the hell that is. It certainly is not Italian. My mother sent me in with a note the next day explaining this situation and I received a satisfyingly public apology from the same teacher.
As for the Irish side, well, there was usually no mistaking that influence; it was quite evident in my appearance. But my O’Shea side had been here for generations, unlike the families of some of my friends, whose parents came over as the first generation. So a lot of the links to the old country were already dissipating into a general NY-Irish-American-ness, which as we know tends to embrace the cartoonish stereotypes and soak them deep with a lot of beer and whiskey. And songs.
Whenever we had a get-together at Uncle Pat’s (who is, himself, half-German) for whichever holiday, out came the folding wooden chairs and some Sing-Along with Mitch records. But also, out came a lot of Irish albums and tunes. These tended to be the old maudlin warhorses like “When Irish Eyes…”, “My Wild Irish Rose,” “The Unicorn,” “Turaluralura,” and, heaven help us, “Danny Boy.” But those sad old melodies, especially as sung by a bunch of old relatives, made quite an impact.
When Buffalo Tom first went to Ireland, probably around 1990 or 1991, we landed and started out in Limerick. Down in the hotel lobby there was a gift store with cassettes for sale. They had Irish Heartbeat, by Van Morrison and the Chieftains. I bought it like the tourist I was. At least it was a cool record and not some lowest-common-denominator tripe. In fact, it turned out to be one of my favorite Van-related records. It was great to hear the Belfast Cowboy soul man hooked up and singing “Irish soul” with the trad Dubliners. I listened to it as I took my jet-lag-recovery nap. I woke up and walked out with the fellas to get some grub and a few pints. One of Tom Maginnis’ best barbs still stings to this day, “You know, Bill is actually considered a very good-looking man in Ireland.” Now this is just wrong on so many counts: a) Tom is as Irish as the Fightin’ Irish guy or the Celtics’ Leprechaun, b) Yes, Tom is handsome (though all beauty fades with age), c) Tom had not yet seen the Corrs or had forgotten Larry Mullen or would not bring the whole isle down with d) me, who is not good-looking by almost any measure, save for that by used by my Mom and wife.
Still stinging and needing something of a salve for my wounds and jetlag, we retired to the first pub we stumbled across, and there was an informal sesiun underway, with a handful of college or high school-age kids in a corner of the bar, around a table, singing all sorts of tunes, from Dylan, to the Waterboys, to traditional Celtic folk, to Van the Man and more. I was tickled to have stumbled in on this, which I later came to find out is a pretty common sight. Though my friends in Session Americana have taken up the cause here in Boston, dealing mostly in, as their name suggests, acoustic American music, and “Irish Sesiuns” take place in Irish pubs around Boston and other cities, it is still a relative rarity to hear music played informally and semi-spontaneously in America. For a rock guy first visiting one of his ancestral spots, seeing and hearing people play great music for the fun of it, because it was just part of their culture, made me wish for it more in my everyday experience back home.
Speaking of Irish Heartbeat and Session Americana, I will be playing this old ballad, which I first heard on that record, with the cats at Session Americana’s St. Patrick’s Day gig at the Lizard Lounge March 17. They play every Tuesday there, just a bunch of extremely talented singers and players around a mic or two, a table with some drinks and friends. This Tuesday just happens to fall on St. Paddy’s Day.