St. Patrick's Day came around every year on March 17 as it does today, but the festivities were just a bit more subdued then, for reasons we were glad to have go away.
If the day fell during the week, in the factory areas of Boston there might have been a few extra drinks at the bar, but most working men saved the celebration for Friday or Saturday night.
The factory whistles blew early on weekday mornings, and the names painted in white letters on their red brick walls were more Yankee than Irish. The owners of the names would not be understanding of the worker who did not show up because he'd spent a night celebrating that "heathen" holiday.
The color green was not needed to indentify the Irish working man who came into the Eagle's Hall each night after the closing whistle sounded. The names and faes took care of that, but there was a bit of green displayed on "the day" -- not in a dyed fresh carnation or an expensive tie with a golden harp, not on a "Kiss me, I'm Irish" button, but a bit of green was worn.
Maybe it was only a sprig in a buttonhole or a green shirt that had been worn another day; nothing was bought special to show the Irish in you. They were working men and, knowing the value of a dollar, they used their money wisely -- to buy an extra drink of whiskey for the occasion.
The celebrations were never a wellkept secret, but neither did the rowdiness spill into the "other" neighborhoods. The comfort was to be surrounded by fellow Irishmen.
You lived among the factories with the "Mayflower" name and did not ever wander far from the streets alloted to you.At home on that night, you ate corned beef and cabbage and a boiled potato and Irish soda bread. It was a meal perhaps shifted from Sunday when the holiday fell on a weekday, and there was a cake with green frosting.
John Donnelly was a middle-aged man who got away from the factories early in life and sold used cars 364 days of the year. On St. Patrick's Day Donnelly became the entertainer, the Irish tenor who told stories and jokes and sang Irish songs invented here -- he not having come from there.
After a few schooners of brew he loved to entertain.
Wearing a derby and waving a cane, he would stand with his back to the far wall of he bar and sing:
"Oh Bridgett O'Flynn, where have you been, it's a foine time for you to come in ."
The men at the bar did not stop their conversations nor look in his direction, but that never stopped Donnelly.
"You went to see the big parade, the big parade me eye, it never took the big parade so long in passing by ."
Donnelly would break into a kick step, tip his derby and wave hs cane as the voices grew louder at the bar, where they loved the warmth of friendship and conversation more than his antics.
As kids we would sneak in and sit at the top of the stairs, hiding from the man who guarded the door against non members. We enjoyed Donnelly's show if no one else did.
The place would empty out about 8 o'clock during the work week, with everyone promising Fogarty the bartender that they would be back on Saturday night, dressed in their best and ready to celebrate.
Saturday night it would be upstairs in the hall, the men all polished up and the women looking lovely in something green.
Our seats were on the fence, with no one to chase us away. They drank and danced, and Donnelly did his share and waited to wet their eyes with his rendition of "Danny Boy."
It took a generation or two to expand the holiday out of the Irish neighborhoods and into the streets.
Now the old people, away from the factories and snug in their living rooms, are invited over to eat at the daughter's house or taken out to a restaurant after the big parade on television.
Here in Washington, the children are all grown up and have better jobs and a bit more money, with more time for themselves and celebrations.
They wear the carnations and the green silk ties with the golden harps.
In the fancy hotels, they dine on corned beef and cabbage, paying more money for one meal than it cost their parents to keep a family of five for a week.
The singing group is imported from Ireland for the night, to entertain with the real songs from the sod.
The talk is proud. "Danny's son over there, he has a good job at City Hall. That's Pat's son over there; he was with Kennedy in the White House -- and did you know that John Reilly won a case in front of the Supreme Court?"
And the Irish ladies sitting at the tables look well as lawyers, doctors, -- even judge here and there -- all wearing a bit of green.
You see it all now and remember sitting on the top step near the door, ready to run, and you remember Donnelly working away at being a new breed of Irish man, sweating and singing.
"There were fighters and biters and Irish dynamiters, there was beer and a-whiskey by the keg .
"There were men of high position, mostly Irish politicians ."
And on and on.
But the story is told each year, lovingly again and again. How Bill Bulger, a politician from South Boston, erased all the lettering from the walls of the factories.
And it was at a St. Patrick's Day banquet at Durgen's Harbor House in Boston that Bulger was called upon to introduce Sen. Leverett Saltonstall of Massachusetts, a true old Yankee.
Shaking hands with the senator, Bulger said, "We would like to thank you for the use of your country."
So here are the Irish again, louder than ever and happy, and everyone who wants to be Irish for the day is welcomed with smiles and hand-shakes.
All you could hope was for Donnelly, the American Irishman, to see it -- all people wearing a part of him. as he danced and sang:
"Ay often walk in with me swagger as if the auld place were me own, how are you auld mother Malone ?
"Ay sit meself down by the fire; how are you auld mother Malone "?