I’m about as Irish as lasagna, but I still like to spread the blarney on St. Patrick’s Day. Like many other non-Irish, I’ll find ways to mark the occasion Tuesday…with beer, stew and maybe one or two choruses of “Harrigan.” But I wasn’t always this way.
When I was seven and eight years old the holiday of shamrocks and leprechauns gave me my first doses of neurosis. I would break out in a cold sweat in February, as soon as I saw the first shamrocks hanging in store windows. Here’s why: my family members were the only Italians in a predominantly Irish neighborhood. My sister and I were the only Italians in our group of Irish playmates. And I always resented St. Pat for throwing the snakes out of Ireland, because I was convinced that most of them had emigrated to our block.
I remember wishing that we had some German, Jewish or black kids in our neighborhood so it wouldn’t always be “us” and “them.”
It was tough being a pepperoni in an Irish stew. When my family first moved into our house in the late 1950s, one neighbor did not talk to us. My sister and I always got along with our Irish friends — until a discussion of the relative merits of our heritages came up. Then we would be reminded that the Romans killed Our Lord; that the “Eye-talians” fought on the side of the Nazis during World War II; and other notorious missteps made by “the boot.” Nobody seemed to care about pizza, Michelangelo or the Italians’ profound impact on art, culture and cuisine…but what was logic against sheer numbers? The vote was 17 to 2 that Leif Ericson discovered America, not some “dirty Dago.”
One girl was the instigator. She had neat ideas like, “Let’s play football…Irish against Eye-talians.” Another playmate was half Irish/half Italian and needless to say he wore his green uniform on these occasions. If we were lucky the green team would give us a few of their toddlers.
Being sensitive, I was always running home in tears. I felt that my heritage was alienating me from my peers; and at the same time was very touchy about anyone cutting us down.
And I always dreaded the middle of March because Irish nationalism peaked around that time. I’d be walking home from my Catholic grade school, which was also mostly Irish, and I’d see those shamrocks and those huge green plastic derbys and green cigars int the five-and-dime. And I knew that “The Day” was near.
I remember getting out of bed on “The Day” and wishing I didn’t have to go to school. There were enough Irish kids in the school…couldn’t they give everyone else “The Day” off?
While I would tearfully retreat from the first onslaughts, my sister Julie was a fighter. One St. Patrick’s Day Julie accidentally wore a pair of greyish/green Hushpuppies shoes. When our mates at the school bus stop pointed this out, she rushed home to change them. Once we got to school, we were surrounded by shamrocks and cardboard leprechauns and green hair ribbons and buttons that said “Kiss Me, I’m Irish.” If you were lucky enough to be English or German you did your busywork and thanked God you were not a picked-upon Italian.
In sixth grade our classmate Nicholas Catrambone brought in cupcakes for all the Italians on St. Patrick’s Day. He actually took a head count the day before to make sure he had enough. Our Irish teacher confiscated them and gave them away through a random drawing. While I did manage to score one, I resented her interfering. Why couldn’t the Italians eat in peace while the rest of the class sang “MacNamara’s Band?”
Why am I digging this up? I haven’t really thought about it for years, and much has changed. The former antagonists from my childhood are now cherished friends. Back in September the organizer of those Irish-versus-Italian football games, another neighborhood friend and I celebrated our 60th birthdays together. Education and maturity have made us more appreciative of one another’s gifts…and one another’s heritages as well. I’ve learned that the Irish also went through a long period of being the oppressed minority; that the conditions that drove them out of Ireland were tragic; that they were scorned and mistreated here well before the Italians were scorned and mistreated here.
Neither the Italians nor the Irish can claim to be an oppressed minority now. We can feel relieved to be living in a post-ethnic America, at least as far as our own nationalities are concerned. But others are not so lucky. We need only look at the events in Ferguson; the Muslim students slaughtered in Chapel Hill; the vile ditty sung on the Sigma Alpha Epsilon bus. We need only look at our own attitudes, stereotypes and suspicions about those who are different, feelings that can persist despite our best efforts. The job of casting out the snakes of intolerance never ends. Let’s start with our own.