Tales of Punching from the Old Country

I wish my father were still with us on a day like today, because only he could simultaneously express pride and shame in being Irish.

The pride was the same as that of any other person of Celtic heritage. The shame was borne more of his experiences in Ireland as a young’un, and his disgust at how Irishness is “celebrated” in America. He lived in Ireland until he was 12, including a few very unhappy years when his father moved to New York for work and had to leave his family behind while he saved enough money to send for them.

One of the first American events he ever went to was the St. Patrick’s Day Parade. Back in Ireland, this was still a solemn, nationalistic, deeply religious occasion. In New York, he saw mounted police teetering and puking from atop their steeds. It was a culture shock, to say the least.

As an adult, he had little good to say about Ireland or the Irish. He noted with bitterness that every one of its best writers had to leave the country (James Joyce, Oscar Wilde), and the few who didn’t fell in line with disastrously romantic notions of self-destruction (Brendan Behan). He traveled all over the world for business,* to India, ex-Soviet republics, Indonesia, and a million other remote locations. But the only place I heard him express displeasure at having to visit was Ireland.

* What kind of business? Very good question. Based on that curious itinerary, and the fact that each one of them experienced strife immediately before or after he arrived, I have my suspicions.

And yet, he would often declare his pride, ways both voiced and unvoiced. His small library contained almost nothing but Irish books, including an annotated version of Dubliners. He once told me he turned down a consulting gig with Reuters because “they’re a British company!” (The from the man responsible for my love of Monty Python and Fawlty Towers.)

Biggest sign of all: he never became an American citizen. This was partially due to his inherent laziness, but it also required him to get his green card validated every few years, which in turn required a lengthy, bureaucratic-nightmare-filled trip to the Irish consulate.

The stories from his youth were told for yucks, but inevitably involved violence or crushing disappointment, or both. Like the story I regaled a crowd with earlier this week. (If you missed it, here’s a variation on the theme.) Or the time his Uncle Paddy, a farmer, was kicked in the chest by a cow and retaliated by delivering a swift punch to the side of Bessie’s head. The cow let out a bovine moan of pain and keeled over, knocked out cold.

But my favorite is the one that best encapsulates his time in Ireland, his view of the place, and maybe Ireland as a whole.

My father was a total wise ass as a kid, or so I’ve been told. Wise-assery was not tolerated by the Christian Brothers who taught at his school. He once described them to me as “like the Gestapo, only not so forgiving.”

On one fine school day when he was about 9 or 10, one commandant-teacher finally had enough of his shenanigans. After talking out of turn one too many times, this Man of God called my father up to the front of the class and punished him for his sins by smashing his face into the dense metal chalk tray that lined the blackboard.

This would’ve been a horrible thing to do to any kid, but my dad’s nose bled very easily, to the point that he eventually had to have his nasal capillaries cauterized (!). So blood gushed out of his nose, fountain-like, in a display that was as tough to watch as it was to suffer through. The priest, a little cowed and a little terrified, cleaned my father up to the best of his ability and sent him home.

My grandfather, upon seeing the state my dad was in, demanded an explanation. My dad told him this was his punishment for talking in class. My grandfather grabbed him and marched down to the school.

In case you haven’t read any of my other stories of Ireland, it’s important to know that my grandfather was not only well over 6 feet tall, but used to play Gaelic football. That’s a sport for people who think rugby isn’t brutal enough. In short, this kid-assaulting priest was in some deep shit.

My grandfather arrived at the school and hunted down the priest, who was much smaller than him in every respect. “Did you do this to him?” he asked the priest, pointing at my father busted, bloody face. The priest choked out a syllable to tacitly admit his guilt, whereupon my grandfather grabbed the priest by the scruff of his neck and lifted him off the ground, high enough that their eyes met.

“If you ever touch my son again, I’ll kill you,” he growled, then dropped the priest.

Naturally, my father over the moon about this. My dad beat up a priest! he thought to himself. Life is gonna be different around this school from now on! I’m gonna be living on easy street.

Of course, when my father got home he was beaten within an inch of his life for getting in trouble in school.