Home Page, Site Index, Search, Help

shamrock Go to St. Patrick's Day Page

shamrock Go to Home Page

The Look of the Irish:
It's a Heritage as Plain as the Nose on a Face

By Henry Allen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 17, 1995; Page B01

You don't talk much about English faces, Polish faces, Korean faces or Nigerian faces. You never say "He had a face like the map of Belgium."

But Irish faces are artworks, monuments to Irishness, and we are all critics -- who knows how many people chased Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams around town this week just to see what kind of an Irish face he'd brought with him. (The face of a tough, smart priest, the youngest priest ever to be closest to the cardinal, who, in turn, is afraid of him and doesn't know why.)

So many Irish faces: "The common classes are strongly marked with the national peculiarity of features, and by this they are readily recognized in other countries." -- "A Pictorial Geography of the World" (1856).

But what is the peculiarity? What is their Irishness?

Among these faces:

Map of Ireland: big chin, thin upper lip, nose of topographical complexity and hooded eyes whose lids seem to cross the pupils on a slow diagonal -- features almost too big for the face, heavy and quaint like a 1954 Buick Roadmaster.

Goddess Colleen: big-boned, redheaded, like Athena with freckles, skin as pale as Chinese takeout cartons, and a look of splendid uncaring about their architectural cheekbones.

Black Irish: The same skin without the freckles, and hair that is not dark but black, Spanish bullfighter black, telephone black, vestment black, a blackness said to come from survivors of the Spanish Armada, but come on, now. The Black Irish sometimes have quick eyes like the redhead goddesses, suggesting that they're thinking a little faster than you're talking.

Wait-and-See: Dark eyes and dark mouths, dark as bruises. They all slope down like chevrons. These faces give away precisely nothing. They make you worry they know something you don't. Georgia O'Keeffe had a little of that in her face -- a dark, hard thing.

Leprechaun: Wide, with no upper lip at all, but a long, full lower one, and slanting eyes.

Tip O'Neill: Faces of this model, named for the late speaker of the House, cannot be imagined young. They are huge, like barns shingled with jowls, layer on layer, chin on chin, eye bags on eye bags, sometimes with the vast, red nose that has provoked the definition of an Irishman as "Thirty pounds of face and 40 pounds of liver."

The Irish do blue eyes very well. They have the best white hair in the world. These are faces that can be so immediate, so 3-D, that when you talk with them they seem to be coming toward you without ever getting any closer.

But all we are doing is betraying the Irish yet again by casting them into stereotypes.

The ultimate travesty was once known as the stage Irishman. An account in 1913 said: "His hair is of a fiery red, he is rosy-cheeked, massive, and whiskey-loving. His face is one of simian bestiality, with an expression of diabolical archness written all over it." The movies are full of tweed-capped schemers with crooked grins, and wisdom accompanied by a wink: "The Informer," with Victor McLaglen; "Going My Way," with Bing Crosby; "The Luck of the Irish," with Tyrone Power; "Top o' the Morning," with Bing Crosby; and Walt Disney's "Darby O'Gill and the Little People," with Sean Connery -- all the cliches of the romance of the Irish.

But the brogue-and-shillelagh romance has nothing to do with the Irishness you see instantly in the faces of John Kennedy, Maureen O'Hara, Sinead O'Connor, Tom Brokaw, Richard Daley, Pat Nixon, Phil Donahue, Cardinal Spellman, Jimmy Cagney, Joe McCarthy, Jimmy Breslin, Sandra Day O'Connor, Jackie Gleason, Mia Farrow, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Peter O'Toole, Jack Dempsey, Helen Hayes, Jack Nicholson, Spencer Tracy or Brooke Shields, to take from a list of names in "The Book of Irish Americans."

Is it the expression on the face? Like Italian faces, the Irish ones seem to have a wisdom -- they've seen the worst the world can dish out, the difference being that the Irish are still proud of being tough enough to eat it. Ah, the perversity of it all. Teddy Kennedy tells about the Irishman jailed for a month for stealing a ham. After three weeks, his wife asks the judge to free him.

"Is he good to you?" the judge asks.

"No, sir, he isn't," says the wife.

"Does he treat the children well?"

"No, sir, he's mean to them."

"Why on Earth do you want him back again?"

"Well, to tell the truth, Judge -- we're about to run out of ham."

Here, of course, is the stereotypical domineering Irish mother, and the scoundrel father.

Much has been written on Irishness, much of it derogatory.

In 416, Saint Jerome wrote of an Irishman who argued with him: "An ignorant calumniator . . . full of Irish porridge."

In the 18th century, Samuel Johnson said: "The Irish are a fair people; they never speak well of one another."

In 1808, J.W. Croker wrote in "A Sketch of the State of Ireland" that the Irish are "restless yet indolent, shrewd and indiscreet, impetuous, impatient, and improvident, instinctively brave, thoughtlessly generous, quick to resent and forgive offenses, to form and renounce friendships."

In 1851, the Rev. Theobald Mathew in the New York Tribune, on drunken Irish feuding: "I implore you to discard forever . . . those factious broils (too often, alas, the fruits of intemperance) in which our country is disgraced."

In 1922, Edmund Wilson wrote of F. Scott Fitzgerald, America's first major Irish Catholic novelist, that "like the Irish, Fitzgerald is romantic, but also cynical about romance; he is bitter as well as ecstatic; astringent as well as lyrical. He casts himself in the role of the playboy, yet at the playboy he incessantly mocks. He is vain, a little malicious, of quick intelligence and wit, and has an Irish gift for turning language into something iridescent and surprising."

As for a face, Fitzgerald had a beautiful, fragile one, the face "of an easily frightened angel," as Hemingway said.

In 1963 William Shannon wrote in "The American Irish" of novelist John O'Hara: "Hard-drinking, quick to take offense, carrying a large Irish chip on his shoulder, he was a young country-club buck striving for big-town sophistication in a raccoon coat and a button-down shirt from Brooks Brothers. But, underneath, there was genuine talent."

O'Hara's face was of the Map of Ireland variety.

Some Irish faces today still look like they're caught in the 19th century, as if they've escaped from daguerreotypes or old orthographic film shots (like Mathew Brady's of the Civil War, with their empty white skies) of hapless, sunstruck rebels about to be hanged or grimy barefoot women surrounded by grimier children who have what Philip Larkin called "shallow, violent eyes." Like so many of their countrymen after centuries of British tyranny, they have the ephemeral, fatalist, yet perversely optimistic faces that seem to say: "A broken leg! Be glad you didn't break them both. Then you couldn't have crawled out of the bog and you'd have died for sure."

You look at pictures of the Irish during the Great Famine's potato blight, when a million of 8 million people died while the British shipped potatoes out of the country. You see the horrible blend of ignorance and cynicism that is the mark of the oppressed. And you see the extreme poverty that's like extreme old age -- it makes whoever suffers it raceless and placeless, universal citizens, members of the worldwide nation of the Poor and Downtrodden. They could be refugee Tibetans or captured Confederates or American Indians.

William Shannon -- a friend of the Kennedys who was ambassador to Ireland -- writes: "Every Irishman was prepared to shake hands with Doom, since that gentleman had been so frequent a visitor in the past. He had no difficulty believing Christianity's doctrines of evil and original sin. These were the most congenial truths of his religion. . . . Melancholy . . . was a common cast of mind, death familiar and even looked forward to."

Deaths and wakes are an art form with the Irish, who traipse past the coffin in the heft of their mourning clothes. Among the older ones, there may be flasks and wailing.

Danny Coleman, who owns the Dubliner restaurant and the Phoenix Park Hotel near Union Station, says: "You know what they call the obituaries, don't you? The Irish sports page. Back home in Syracuse, my brother Michael goes to four and five wakes a week. Wouldn't miss one. I say, Michael, who's this one for?' He says, That guy's father was our mailman when we were little. I think the family should be represented.' "

Immigrant Irish are sometimes startled by St. Patrick's Day green beer, green neckties, green bagels, green leprechaun hats, green shamrocks, jig-dancing, shillelagh toting and the occasional outburst of fistfighting and puking in the gutters. Erin go bragh. Leprechaun lawn ornaments. The smarminess of the Irish Spring soap ads. Winking, drinking, shuffling, snuffling Irish in ads and movies. Running "The Quiet Man" on TV on St. Patrick's Day the way "It's a Wonderful Life" is on at Christmas. Wall plaques reading "May the road rise to meet you. May the wind be always at your back, the sun shine warm upon . . . , etc." And they're all descended from kings! King Niall, Shane the Proud, Brian Boru, Rory O'Connor: At various times Ireland has been divided into as many as nine kingdoms, hence many kings, hence many genealogies and crested rings belonging to the American Irish.

This is the romance, and it goes on and on, even though, as Yeats said, "Romantic Ireland's dead and gone."

"Of all the tricks which the Irish nation have played on the slow-witted Saxon, the most outrageous is the palming off on him of the imaginary Irishman of romance. The worst of it is that . . . the insubstantial fancies of the novelists and music-hall songwriters of one generation are apt to become the unpleasant and mischievous realities of the next." -- George Bernard Shaw.

There is a bleak romance of perversity, as seen recently in the faces of a great movie, "The Commitments," in which a group of young people rise from the sullen grime of North Dublin with their soul music band, then ruin it all with jealousy, egotism, alcohol, blarney, impossible expectations and, at root, the belief in the inevitability of failure.

"The Irish are great at supporting each other when they're down, but if you start to rise up they knock you down," says Lorna Hovell, born in Ireland and now director of sales at the Phoenix Park Hotel.

There is an even bleaker romance of the Irish Republican Army too, a romance of revenge and the revolution that ended for most Irishmen in the 1920s. Bombings and shootings, mortarings and kneecappings while money and guns are gathered in New York and Boston to support the ski-masked men with machine guns, their faces wracked with the subliminal dysplasia of defiance when they're arrested and we see them in the newspapers.

Gerry Adams, head of the IRA's political wing, Sinn Fein, has been in Washington, inching his way toward legitimacy, and opening an office he decribed as a "diplomatic mission."

A Britisher at Adams's press conference at the Capital Hilton drawled: "Will you have a military attache?"

Adams has mastered the look of lightly bearded, thick-spectacled gentleness one associates with peacemakers or saving the whales, but it seemed a cover, a veneer like the leather stretched around a blackjack. Then again, he's in a tough business.

Like a lot of native Irish, he seemed less Irish than the American Irish in the room with their shamrock pins, members of the Ancient Order of Hibernians doing slow intense prowls over the television cables, shaking hands and talking as if Everything Was Understood."

"A lot of them have been activists," said Rep. Thomas Manton of New York. "There are a lot of memories of a rural Ireland and a lost time that may never have existed."

On his way out of the room, Adams said: "People are always saying the Irish Americans are romantics. I've never found it to be true."

He walked off in a broil of cameras and lights, and something about him suggested that through an act of will he may have given up watching for the sort of violence he's trying to quell -- the romance of destiny, fatalism, doom.

Rock musician Bob Geldof was quoted in the Irish Echo as saying: "Irish Americans are no more Irish than black Americans are Africans."

Anne Marie Schmidt, a Washington restaurant manager from Dublin, says of Irish Americans: "We don't necessarily call them Irish."

There are 5 million Irish in Ireland, north and south. There are 39 million Irish in America -- almost one out of six Americans claimed Irish ancestry in the 1990 census. Whose Irish are the real Irish?

The faces are everywhere in America.

Side-of-beef faces, faces with fabulously understated blond hair of a color James Joyce described as "oakpale." Smiling mouths and mournful eyes. Mournful mouths and smiling eyes. Faces of bitter precision that look right in octagonal rimless glasses. Tired women's faces that know what's going to happen next, because it's all happened to them before. Pink, round, breathless faces. Knife-edge faces on altar boys gone bad. Flat, merciless faces of mama's boys. Proud, double-chinned fathers standing next to daughters in new nuns' habits. Faces that capture the camera as much as it captures them. Easter portraits with hundreds of children arranged by height, like organ pipes, and the mother holding a baby -- you can almost smell the boiled food and the candles.

And the names! What is it about Irish names, particularly boys' names, regardless of last names? Kevin Shapiro, Brian Priebowicz, Barry Fleming, Murphy Brown, Ryan Ostroff, Tyrone Washington and, for girls, Eileen, Shaun and the popular Kelly, as in Kelly Nguyen. You get the feeling it's the mothers who give them to the sons, at least -- that they like the thought of having a Brian or Kevin for a son -- loyal, brooding, unpredictable, angry, funny, cute, solemn and chaste, even if he takes a drink now and then.

Odd -- there are 58 million Americans who claimed German ancestry on the census, but we don't have our schools filling up with Helmuts and Karl-Heinzes.

Wouldn't a lot of mothers choose Irish faces for their children too?

But who would choose the sorrows that made them?

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

Back to the top



Home Page, Site Index, Search, Help