In Central Massachusetts in the 1980s, to be an Irish American kid was to know which pub had the best bacon cheeseburger. Your job was to throw your weight behind your favorite apostrophe restaurant — Mickey’s, Slattery’s or Donnelly’s — when your parents chose among them.
In my hometown of 8,500, these bars were the only places to get a meal out. To save money, my mom cooked the lion’s share of our food, but every few months we would go for burgers. I can still see the pubs in my mind’s eye: shiny shamrock-and-leprechaun metallic bunting at one; “Pot o’ Gold” coloring place mats at another. They were not fancy, but they were where our community gathered. My father — a small-town lawyer everyone knew — would take a minute to make the rounds, clapping people on the back and shaking hands. When he finally sat down with his Guinness, he would take a sip and let the foam sit on his Tom Selleck mustache for a moment before exhaling into his chair.
Maybe kids with money grow up going to one nice French restaurant, and for them canard à l’orange is the epitome of haute cuisine, but for me, a bacon cheeseburger made by a stranger was the ne plus ultra of dining out. The Cheeseburger Lifestyle was so part of me that when I moved to Portland, Ore., for college, I realized to my dismay that I might have to eat tofu, Thai food or something called “Asian fusion” to survive. (Hey, it was the ’90s.)
“Where are all the Irish pubs where I can get a burger?” I demanded of my roommate, a native Portlander. She didn’t know.
My parents are second-generation Irish, descendants of Kennedys, Murphys and Fallons. On reflection, it seems unfair to my ancestors that my haphazard assimilation of their heritage eschewed Aran sweaters, Gaelic and fiddle music in favor of green-frosted cupcakes on St. Paddy’s and the feeling that every Irish pub is my living room.
It’s a capricious line to draw in the sand: As a child, I had no time for my parents’ obsession with the Old Country. No need to visit, I’d tell them. We have rolling green hills and beautiful vistas right here in Massachusetts cow country, plus you can eat ice cream next to a barn where they milk the cows inside!
Still, the Irish Stuff kept coming, thick as snow in a storm. A 9-year-old wanting nothing more than a cherry-red Champion sweatshirt for Christmas received a heavy-as-sin cable-knit Irish sweater, and tried not to cry in front of the aunt who gave it to her. Every St. Patrick’s Day, mom would set the cabbage on to boil, and I would call friends while holding my nose, asking them to rescue me. And the music — “traditional music,” or “trad,” in Ireland — sent me scrambling to my room to stuff tissues in my ears as soon as I heard the first fiddle.
A stubborn child, I swore I’d never go to Ireland, and although I’ve been lucky enough to go to far-flung places, including New Zealand and Singapore, I’ve stuck to that bizarre promise to myself.
But come St. Patrick’s Day, one thing would crack my resolve: The local Market Basket would sell little plastic clamshells of green cupcakes swathed in white frosting, with fat jellied shamrocks and green sprinkles studding their tops. Mom baked cookies only about once a month — God forbid we buy the kind in bags — and to me, those little shamrocks represented the best sweets could possibly be. How good does green taste? I had to know.
“Oh, yeah, they were so gross,” Mom remembers. But she finally broke and bought them for us, and my brother and I reveled in their fakeness. When the Shamrock Shake arrived at McDonald’s, we whined and reminded our parents of our heritage until they let us try them. (Even we knew they were awful, but feigned that they were marvelous.) I had no interest in learning about the St. Brigid’s Cross at Mass, but I loved these fake-Irish food traditions.
It’s funny, the soft spots we have for where we came from. My mother would buy Murphy Oil Soap, and my father Irish Spring. They were the target market. I remember having my tongue scrubbed with the latter after coming home from school with the new word “hell” in my vocabulary. (“I can’t believe I did that,” says my mother today, “but I wouldn’t put it past me.”)
An Irish friend from County Wexford, who married an American and lives in Brooklyn, owns one of the off-white, cable-knit sweaters from the Aran Islands that I so resisted. “I don’t know anyone who wears one in Ireland,” she tells me. “It’s quite an old item, and it’s been around for a really long time. But living here, I’m especially glad I have one because it makes me feel connected to my culture.”
These days I live in New York City, where you can go to an Irish pub across from a huge Chinese food court and expect to see packets of soy sauce, chopsticks and black vinegar on every table in the bar. The taverns here are as eclectic as the neighborhoods and a vast improvement on the monoculture in which I grew up.
A few months ago, I went to the doctor for a 28-week ultrasound. “That is a very pronounced chin,” said the nurse, frowning, as my baby’s pointy profile fuzzed into view.
“That’s a Kennedy chin,” I told her, smiling. It is my chin, and my mother’s chin, and my 1-month-old girl — to whom we gave the middle name Kennedy — wears it like it was tailor-made.
And although I was housebound for a few days after her birth, I insisted that her father and mine go out to brag about her and toast her arrival at the local pub. It didn’t feel real until they did.
Van Buren is a writer and editor living in Brooklyn.
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