How the Irish Tried to Kill Me–A Fairy Tale

 I’m what kids in my grade school used to call a “Gimmick”: half Guinea and half Mick, although feature-wise I definitely favor the Irish half. Joel, my Southern friend, never understood the Northeastern want to claim a heritage other than American. I suppose it comes from that immigrant need to hyper-identify with one’s own, borne of being ridiculed, refused for jobs and kept in slums. The Italians went the way of small business ownership (legit) and mafioso (not so much), while the Irish became the police and fire force (legit) and politicians (not so much). I used to wear both stripes proudly, because I ended up a real mutt. Slow to anger but with a bit of a temper. Thrifty, yet a lavish gift-giver. Even-keeled yet passionate. My wife (Irish and Dutch) likes to say we got together because of my Italian side, but we stay together because of my Irish side. Which makes it all the more difficult to admit this:

The Irish tried to kill me and my family.

It started when we sold our house in Newburgh. We had lived in a very nice Spanish neighborhood in a good part of the city, but the schools were getting very rough. So we decided to pick up and move in with my mother for a year so we could a) save money for awhile, b) get the kids in a nicer district and c) cut my commute in half. Great idea, huh? It all looked so good on paper. Needless to say it was a complete bust, and within four weeks we knew we had to move out a few minutes earlier than immediately. So as is our want with major life crises, we made a snap decision. We’d move to Greene County, where my family used to vacation. We met a fine gentleman who represented the Irish Cultural Centre (I’d end up working for him and he remains a great friend to us), and he showed us a little two story house that was on their grounds. It had a nice bedroom for the boys, an apple tree in the backyard and a baseball field three minutes walk away. East Durham calls itself  “The Emerald Isle of the Catskills” and there are shamrocks painted on the road. We checked out the school and there was one class per grade. It was McMayberry.

Until September became January. Then we noticed a few tiny faults with our new home. Like the fact that the windows had a annoying habit of falling completely out and crashing onto the ground below. And the kitchen was built over a hollow hole in the earth so when you walked in there your legs froze up to your hip. The electric heat managed to beat back the cold in one half of one room, while the rest dispersed through the uninsulated, paper-thin walls. Our first winter bill was four figures because apparently the line that lit the Cultural Centre Christmas tree was somehow connected to ours. Water came out in a slow trickle and took approximately 6 hours to heat up. The downstairs toilet stopped working, which was a blessing in disguise because now we could avoid putting on snowshoes to walk through the kitchen. We bundled up in layers, tried to cover up the holes with plastic, chased the live bat out of our upstairs bedroom (true) and prayed to God we’d make it until morning. The Emerald Isle was really God’s freezer, and we were His fish sticks.

So. We put together our list of grievances into a polite note and sent it to the Cutural Centre board of directors. The average age of the board was 96. A few, I’m quite certain, still held slaves. I don’t want to give the impression that they were ALL biddies who managed to keep their Irish-themed businesses afloat by using 100 years out-of-date building materials, overcharging summer vacationers and paying locals minimum wage… Of course they ALL didn’t have that thin-lipped, mean-aunt scowl on their face, looking at you as if you asked them to part with the first nickel they ever made (which was still safely wrapped in their bony, Hibernian hand and would be until the coroner pried open their cold, dead, rigid fist). I don’t want to give you that impression at all—there were some very nice people on the board! But apparently those people hadn’t attended the meeting where they drafted the letter requesting that we leave the premises by the end of the month.

That was about this time I started getting really sick, and I was down to working 4 days a week as a result. The doctors said my condition was made worse by stress, so I had no idea WHY it was affecting me now. What was stressful about having no money, no health or energy left to work, and a house literally falling down around our ears that we now were being evicted from because we dared to ask that it be livable? Then it occurred to me. The snakes had to end up somewhere after they left Ireland! I was in Irish hell. My fate would be eternally decided by pinched-face, priggish, lace-curtain banshees who would drive over my dead body to get to Church on time. They were trying to kill me and my kind. Payback for not living through the potato famine, or maybe for my Sullivan-born mother marrying Italian.

The good news is that eventually I collapsed, had emergency surgery and was declared unfit to work anymore. You see, every fairy tale has a happy ending!

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    • joelflowers
    • January 27th, 2011

    Actually, I do think it’s important to claim a heritage, and my sister has traced one part of my family back to England in 1543. At least, that’s when when they sailed away to this country. Another part of the family is German, coming from the 1700’s (at least, that’s as far as we’ve so far traced them). That’s why I have never understood a group of people in this country who spend so much time whining about the “auld sod.” Your story – although I already knew most of it- is appalling, but not surprising. I have found most older Irish-Americans here (although they usually prefer to be called simply “Irish”) to be a sour, clique-ish bunch.

  1. How DARE you besmirch my thin-lipped heritage!

    I hate to make broad generalizations about groups of people, but dear St. Patrick they were evil to us.

    Mary Ellen’s Dutch roots go back to the 1740s by the way. Since our experience she’s dropped her Irish-identification completely. Me, I’m still a Johnny-come-lately.

    • Karen Mills
    • January 27th, 2011

    Oh, my! Quite a fairy tale…except that it’s true. And it hasn’t ended yet, because the evil snake-people have not gotten their just reward!

    To be continued…..

    • Unfortunately, Karen, I think my feeble blog will have to suffice as their comeuppance.

    • Kae
    • January 27th, 2011

    Hi, Brian! I’ve been reading all your blog entries since Mary Ellen first mentioned them at Facebook. I love them. Sorry the Irish treated you and yours so shamefully. They can be a bad bunch! 😉

  2. Hi Kae! Thanks–you can sign up to get them by email if you want.

    Hope Robert is well, and of course your beautiful daughter, her husband and baby-to-be!

    • joelflowers
    • January 28th, 2011

    I’ve SO happy to hear that Mary Ellen has dropped the Irish thing. That leaves her as what – a Dutch Jew? 🙂

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