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The Look of the Irish:
By Henry Allen
It's a Heritage as Plain as the Nose on a Face
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
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"
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
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
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,
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
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
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