At the start of April, some of my aunts and uncles mentioned to my Grandmother, Mary Sheahan, that her birthday was coming up, reminding her that her birthday is April 10.
“Oh,” she said as casually as if she were discussing the bus schedule. “I’m not going to make that.”
She passed away less than a week shy of her 95th birthday. Her death was not a shock, and we were as prepared, at least bureaucratically, as a family can be.
My Grandmother was born Mary Fogarty in 1924 in Roscrea, Tipperary, in what was then the Irish Free State. There were only 48 United States at that time, and Calvin Coolidge was President. Prohibition would last another nine years in America.
Her father had been in the British Army, enlisting in the early 20th century when all of Ireland was under British control. He had spent time in India and had fought in the First World War, including the fierce Battle of the Marne. When he came to the U.S. he worked as a janitor and had fought for the right to organize a union, winning a court battle to form a union. This sense of right and wrong, and fighting for your principles is one that runs strongly in our family to this day.
My Grandmother married my grandfather, John Sheahan, in 1948 and their first child was born in 1949. At one family barbecue, her oldest son, my uncle Tim, pointed out to her that his birthday was exactly nine months and one day past her wedding date. She giggled and, noticing me observing this conversation, instructed me not to comment. Tim smiled and said, “It was Bear Mountain,” referring to where my grandparents had honeymooned.
I doubt I will ever know anyone who embodies unconditional love and the joy of living the way my grandmother did. Her world centered around her family and with seven children, nine grandchildren and four great grandchildren, she had a lot of love to share and names to keep straight. Hers was always the voice of kindness and love, and her generosity of spirit never waned. Whether it was caring for my Grandfather through decades of debilitating health problems or facing her own mortality years later, she was always an example of great strength. It was she who went about my Grandfather’s wake comforting others who were weeping, even though it was her moment to mourn more than anyone’s. We would have easily forgiven her a moment or two of self pity, having lost a husband, a daughter, and son-in-law along the way and dealing with difficult health issues in her final years. But she was a rock of strength, sustained by a strong religious faith and a dedication to her family that went beyond what anyone could ever ask.
My Grandmother’s life was her family, and she showed us that the greatest joys are often the ones of simply being present and investing time and care into the lives of the people around you. Her power stretched far beyond her blood relatives and her wake and funeral saw visitors from every part of her life, including people she had worked with decades ago or knew her as a neighbor for only the last few years.
If there is any available measure of the amount of love my Grandmother brought into the world, it was reflected in the care and hard work her own children did during her final months and years. My Father and aunts and uncles worked around the clock taking care of her and navigating through our Byzantine and often inept healthcare system. When her final course was set, relatives flew to New York from all over the country to be with my Grandmother at the end.
When my Grandmother passed, our family became a team effort yet again. My Aunt Patty’s house became a central gathering place, my cousins gave readings at the funeral or served alongside me as pallbearers. My Aunt Peggy arranged for the Ridgefield Chorale to sing at church and they did beautifully. My Father delivered a beautiful eulogy that left not a dry eye in the house and had both humor and inspiration.
One thing that my older relatives taught me is that the work you have to do during a wake and funeral is helpful, in that it keeps your mind occupied on something else other than the loss of your loved one. I was honored to be a pall bearer, and focused on making sure things went smoothly at what is the most heart-wrenching part of the funeral.
In the years after my Grandfather died, my Grandmother described a dream she had. She sees my Grandfather, appearing as he had when younger, dressed sharply in a suit and hat. He strides through the lobby of a building and gets into an elevator. She goes to follow him in but he puts his hand up, signaling this was not her time. The elevator doors close and the car begins its climb without her. I hope this dream replayed again for my Grandmother, and she joins my Grandfather on the elevator this time. The doors now close on the rest of us.
We are without our matriarch, but she has left us with loving instructions in the way of her example. If we live our lives with a fraction of the love, dignity and grace that Mary Sheahan had, we will have earned our rest.
St. Patrick’s Day is the time of year when everyone wants to be Irish for a few hours and their definition of being Irish is being an obnoxious drunk. There are actually a lot of nice things about being Irish and Ireland has given us a lot of great things besides a love of the drink.
Among the many positive contributions the Irish have made to the world is music, and around St. Patrick’s Day every year a litany of Irish groups come through the Big Apple to quench our thirst for authentic Irish art.
The Chieftains have been popularizing traditional Irish music since the 1960s and with some luck of the Irish and the busy schedule of generous in-laws, my wife and I scored tickets to see them at Town Hall in midtown Manhattan.
Most of the crowd at the show were well-dressed middle aged people like me or older. I thought I might be overdressed but I wasn’t, which confirms yet again I’ve reached middle age where I can blend in with a crowd that used to look old to me.
But sitting behind us was a loud, possibly drunk, but definitely rude women who acted as if she were in her living room, talking loudly and even shouting ahead to a woman seated in the row ahead of us. After sitting through several songs listening to this absurdly inane and incredibly impolite chatter, my wife asked her to keep her voice down.
The woman took great offense and spent the rest of the show muttering under her breath about how she planned to confront my wife. ‘Go ahead lady,’ I thought to myself. ‘It’s your funeral.’
The Chieftains put on an outstanding performance. They’ve had many celebrated collaborators in the past and had an impressive cast of guest musicians and dancers joining them throughout the evening. A good time was had by all.
Once the show was over and the lights went up, the woman told my wife that she had no right to ask her to be quiet, that the show was for everyone to enjoy and some such malarkey. My wife told her in no uncertain terms that she was wrong and needed to learn some manners. The woman, embarrassed to be called out for such puerile behavior, wouldn’t let go. But my wife can dish out whatever you send her way. The woman’s friends were horrified and did not want to see their friend get thrashed by a visibly pregnant woman.
One of her friends motioned to me and implored me to get my wife out of the building. I told her it was her friend that needed the help, not my wife. The rude woman’s friends eventually corralled her and we all went our separate ways.
No punches were thrown, no chairs hurled through the air. I’m glad for that, though I think it would have been great to watch my pregnant wife knock out this nasty shrew of a woman. I’d take a video of it and then yell, “WORLDSTAR!!” and post it to WorldStarHipHop web site, a popular place to post videos of altercations.
In the end we walked out into the sweet Spring New York night and walked to Times Square, where my wife once reminded me that sometimes you have to enjoy being a tourist in your own city.
We will survive the stupidity of this St. Patrick’s Day as we have survived all others, with pride in our Irish culture intact and our tempers only a little bit the worse for wear.
The great green retardation is upon us once again. St. Patrick’s Day should be a sad day for Irish people. The day has been reduced to an excuse to get drunk. Getting drunk is fine, but drinking to celebrate Irish culture is like smoking crack to celebrate Black History Month. The Irish Americans, for all the good they have done this country, are quick to embrace the worst in themselves. No other ethnic group I can think of so joyously trumpets its own most negative stereotype.
Celebrate April 24 or June 20 instead. St. Patrick’s Day is a Catholic saint’s feast day. Catholicism has had a tremendous influence on Ireland and I’m sure some of it has been good. But for the most part Catholicism has helped keep Ireland divided and promoted poverty and child molestation. The Catholic influence is such that in the Republic of Ireland divorce wasn’t legalized until 1996 and abortion wasn’t legalized until 2013. It will be a tremendous help to divorce Irish identity from Catholicism. And if you are the religious sort, I don’t think too many people left in the world have a holy or religious association with St. Patrick’s Day anymore. If you let the day be just a saint’s feast day once again, Irish Americans can join with everyone else in puking their guts out on Cinco de Mayo.
Since we celebrate America’s Independence on the day the Declaration of Independence was signed, let’s celebrate Irish heritage with the anniversary of the Easter Rising of 1916, which is April 24. It took longer before most of Ireland was free from British rule (we’re still waiting), but that was the beginning of the end of most of Ireland leaving the U.K., even though the rebellion was quickly crushed and most of its leaders executed.
If you’d prefer a summer Irish celebration, June 20 is the birthday of Theobald Wolfe Tone, the leader of the 1798 United Irishman Rebellion. The United Irishman Rebellion failed miserably (it would have worked if the French had gotten to Ireland in time to help), but Wolfe Tone (who happened to be Protestant) is considered the founder of Irish republicanism.
Read some Irish literature. Ireland has produced more poets and playwrights than you can shake a shillelagh at. Go try to wade your way through the more problematic James Joyce, but read Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Dubliners first. In fact, June 16 or Bloomsday would be another great Irish national holiday in place of St. Patrick’s Day.
So read Brendan Behan’s plays and Yeats’ poems. Did you know that Bram Stoker, who wrote Dracula, was Irish? Did you know Irish playwright Samuel Beckett used to drive Andre the Giant to school? It’s true. Go see a Beckett play or a Martin McDonagh play. Impress your lady friends with some witty Oscar Wilde quotes. You will be a better person for it.
Learn some Irish (aka Gaelic). Like most Americans, I am not fluent in the indigenous language of my ancestors. The Irish language had been called Gaelic for a long time, but since there are other forms of Gaelic, such as Scots Gaelic in Scotland and Ulster Scots, a form of Scots Gaelic spoken in parts of the North of Ireland, the Irish Gaelic language is now just called Irish. There are classes at the Irish Arts Center in New York and in many cities around the U.S. It’s a beautiful language and learning to speak Irish will do your brain more favors than downing a fifth of Jameson.
Revive Irish nationalism. Padraig Pearse famously said, “Ireland unfree will never be at peace.” Ireland is still divided and while the paramilitary violence that plagued it over the past several decades is over, there is still residual sectarian violence and breakaway paramilitaries fighting for their causes. If Irish Americans were as united in pursuing a united Ireland as Jewish Americans are in advocating for Israel, we could have united Ireland next week. What will happen in two years from now when it is 2016, 100 years after the Easter Uprising, and we still have a divided Ireland? Also, self-proclaimed Irish nationalist groups in Ireland have failed to address and in fact have supported large-scale immigration to Ireland. Ireland has seen massive immigration of similar scale that has already had very dangerous effects in places such as England and France. Irish Americans, who were instrumental in supporting the struggle for Irish freedom for centuries, should help revive Irish nationalism in Ireland once again.