Franklin Roosevelt was seldom at a loss for words. Three days before, he had nominated the most prominent Irish-American at the time, Joseph P. Kennedy of Massachusetts, to be the United States Ambassador to the Court of St. James. The president was amused that he had appointed someone so Irish to the second most prestigious position in the State Department as the new Ambassador to England.
Much to his chagrin, however, FDR soon began receiving a plethora of outraged phone calls disputing his controversial appointment, mostly from indignant Irish-Americans. Roosevelt looked baffled as he took still another call from an irritated Irish-American official.
He glanced over at his very Irish-American secretary, Missy LeHand, and muttered, “What is the matter with you people? The minute one of you accomplishes anything – there’s always another fellow behind him with a rock, more than eager to bring him down.”
Missy LeHand merely smiled.
As we celebrate St. Patrick’s Day around the globe, those of us who are Irish would surely nod their heads in an endorsement of Roosevelt’s allegation if his testimonial could be magically circulated throughout the Irish world. A case in point: some years ago, I ran into my elderly, Irish-American father as he was coming out of our local high school to vote in an important general election in Massachusetts. His eyes twinkled as he glanced at me.
“Shaunie!” my father hollered, “are you here to cancel my vote?”
“I am, Dad,” I replied.
Without even so much as a hint of irony, he barked, “Good for you!” He gave me a thumbs-up as I strutted into the polling place to negate all of his political preferences that year.
“The Irish,” H. L. Mencken once observed, “have a logic all their own.” There is a famous story often told among Irish circles concerning the famed dual clock towers situated in Ballyhough. The two clocks disagreed at the correct time – one was six minutes faster than the other. When a visiting American asked one of the community’s locals why the town would have two such splendid clock towers that told conflicting times, the man replied, “And what would we be wanting with two clocks if they told the same time?”
Legendary British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli once stated, “You never know what is going to spew forth from an Irishman’s lips. They are a completely unpredictable lot.”
Disraeli’s thesis could certainly be applied to an incident that occurred in June 1963 during President Kennedy’s visit to Europe, which included stops in Germany, England, and Ireland. Pope John XXIII had died suddenly during JFK’s first stop on the trip – West Berlin. By the time Kennedy neared the end of his stay in Europe, Pope Paul VI had already been installed as the latest Bishop of Rome. John Kennedy decided to pay the new pontiff a visit. The nation’s thirty-fifth president contacted his old friend, Richard Cardinal Cushing of Boston, and instructed the Catholic leader to meet him as Air Force One rolled onto the runway at Rome’s international airport. Ultimately, Cushing drove to the airport with two aides; all of the other cardinals in the American delegation had already returned to the United States. As President Kennedy stepped into view from his plane, he noticed Cushing standing alone at the bottom of Air Force One’s ramp.
“Jack! Jack!” cried out the cardinal to his most famous parishioner. “The American cardinals have all left! They’re all a bunch of goddamn Republicans!” President Kennedy, according to eyewitnesses, nearly collapsed in spasms of laughter.
“The Irish don’t get back – they get even,” stated Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill, the legendary Boston congressman, in his spellbinding autobiography, Man of the House. The notion of the famous “Irish grudge” could best be summed up with the words of a traditional Irish curse which goes something like this: “May none of their race survive/May God destroy them all/Each curse of the psalms in the holy books/Of the prophets on them fall. Amen.”
Simply put, the Irish have always loved a good fight. When the Irish fought the English hundreds of years ago, the legend has it that the Anglo-Saxons could not believe how the Celtic Warriors absolutely delighted in the all-consuming passion of hand-to-hand combat. “Their savagery was beyond normality; waves of ecstasy shone from their eyes,” wrote a mystified English chronicler.
In modern times, James Michael Curley, the legendary Boston Irish politician who was immortalized in Edwin O’Connor’s classic novel, The Last Hurrah, embraced the Irish ferocity mindset throughout his colorful fifty-year political career. Curley, who was elected twice from jail, was the proverbial Robin Hood. He stole from the rich and gave to the poor – but took ten percent off as a surcharge. Loquacious, opinionated, and flamboyant, the Mayor could charm any bird from a tree.
Despite his obvious rascality, however, Jim Curley was, according to legendary Speaker of the House, Congressman Tip O’Neill, “a man who did a tremendous amount of good for the people of Boston. As mayor, he provided thousands of jobs while improving the schools and the playgrounds, paving streets, expanding the subway, establishing public beaches, putting up affordable hospitals, tearing down slums, and doing favors for an untold number of people who truly needed help.”
According to O’Neill, however, James Michael Curley detested the ruling Yankee aristocracy, pronouncing them as “our Brahmin overlords.” Obviously, the mayor loved to get back at them whenever he could. Once, when an important project that would benefit the poor in Boston was blocked because the local business establishment, virtually all of them controlled by “Yankees” at the time, the mayor personally visited one of them, the defiant owner of Filene’s. “I want you to know,” Jim Curley informed the Filene’s CEO, “that the city’s water ‘main’ goes right under your fancy building here. If you don’t know where it is, your building manager can surely tell you. If I don’t have that money by this very afternoon,” the mayor exclaimed, “then I’ll open the valves and flood Filene’s Basement in an instant.”
The City of Boston received its loan that afternoon.
“God bless the Irish,” observed Charles Dickens, not after the infamous famine that gripped Ireland, “amid the squalor of their existence, they somehow manage to find humor in the most wretched of situations.” Millions and millions of people have come to relish Frank McCourt’s powerful tome to the indelible nature of the human spirit, the Pulitzer Prize-winning tract, Angela’s Ashes. Despite poverty, hardship, ignorance, and bereavement, McCourt’s account leaves most people shaking their heads at the humor he spewed forth throughout a text that is ladened with poverty, trauma, and pathos.
After his “drunken, loquacious, shiftless father” had finally abandoned McCourt and his family to pursue a life of drink and indolence in England and then in Northern Ireland, the McCourt family was left to fend for themselves. Two decades later, after the four surviving boys had left Ireland for the United States, McCourt’s mother, Angela, who by this time was residing in New York, heard from a relative that the long-lost father was working near Belfast as a cook in a monastery. According to the information that she had received, the elder McCourt was lacking in drink – and filled with great remorse. “Ah, the poor friars,” Frank McCourt stated to his mother when she told him the news, “food must be their penance.”
In 2005, when Frank McCourt published his second sequel to Angela’s Ashes, the vastly underrated Teacher Man, I attended a book signing of McCourt’s at a local bookstore in Stamford, Connecticut. When a member of the audience asked him about the indifferent response of the English in connection with The Great Famine, he replied, “Ah, yes, it was the English version of the Final Solution.”
When I finally sauntered up to the desk that he was signing his newest tome, McCourt asked me my name. When I told him that my name was Shaun Kelly, we looked into each other’s blue eyes.
“God forgive you, son,” he sighed.
Self-effacing humor is another quality that is held dear by most Irishmen. In the quaint vernacular of the Irish, a wheelbarrow is called an Irish ambulance, a diaper is known as an Irish flag, and a rock is sometimes referred to as an Irish diamond. Two of the most popular modern presidents used self-effacing humor to disarm their political opponents. It is no coincidence that John Kennedy and Ronald Reagan were both proud Irish-Americans. When an infuriated reporter tried to nail President-elect Kennedy as to the meager qualifications of his then thirty-four-year-old brother, Bobby, after JFK had appointed Bobby as the nation’s new Attorney General, Kennedy replied, “I don’t see what’s wrong with Robert gaining a little government experience before he goes on to establish a practice in law.”
In 1963, when Congress continued to block important New Frontier legislation, a prominent journalist asked President Kennedy, “Sir, don’t you need to have a heart to heart talk with Senator Goldwater and the other Republican leaders in order to iron out your differences?”
Kennedy quipped, “I think those discussions would probably begin at a lower level.”
President Ronald Reagan possessed the same talent for self-mockery. After he was shot in an assassination attempt in March 1981, he told a friend, “I’ve been shot at many times in my life, but in Hollywood they always used blanks.”
When Reagan entered the operating room to remove bullet fragments from his chest, he proclaimed to the chief physician, “Let’s just hope you are a Republican!”
Both Kennedy and Reagan could laugh at themselves because they both possessed such obvious self-confidence and panache. Politicians in both parties have tried unsuccessfully to emulate them since their presidencies but have been unable to capture the magic of their particular brand of drollery and wit.
“The Irish,” observed T. H. White, “are rank sentimentalists. Their prose and verse drip with a mawkishness that would be unsettling to most other cultures. And yet, I continue to find myself deeply moved by their poems, novels, and lyrics. “Danny Boy,” for instance, still brings tears to even the most stoic of individuals.
The following prayer was recited at the christening of John F. Kennedy, Jr., in 1961:
We wish to the new child
A heart that can be beguiled
By a flower
That the wind lifts
As it passes.
So fleetingly, so fragile.
If the storms break for him
May the trees shake for him –
their blossoms down
And in the night that he is troubled
May a friend wake for him
so that his time be doubled,
And at the end of all the loving
and all the love,
May the Man above –
Give him a crown.
38 years later, the same poem was recited at his funeral by his grieving uncle.
May the wayward winds be with you. Happy Saint Patrick’s Day!