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How My Father Started Talking American

03.10.2001 | CULTURE

I approach St. Patrick's Day with an ambivalence uncommon for someone of Irish descent. Though I have lived in New York all my life, I studiously avoid being anywhere near the city on March 17th. If dying your hair green and fulfilling unsavory stereotypes makes you happy, I won't stand in your way. Just don't ask me to be happy about it either.

Ethnic pride was not prized in my house. My mother was no fan of the Emerald Isle, despite (or perhaps because of) having married someone who was born there. They're all dreamers, my mother would say, with a tartness in her voice that said 'dreamer' was the opposite of 'doer'. And for someone of my mother's working-class background, nothing was more despicable than a slacker.

On the other side of the equation was my father, who arrived in this country from Dublin when he was 12 years old but had nothing good to say about it. He was Black Irish, possessed of dark brown hair, and could pass for almost anything but Irish. There was usually no trace of an accent in his voice, except for the times he chose to display it. When an Irish tourism commercial would flash from the TV, he would lapse into a harping brogue and attack it with a life's worth of sarcasm. Diddly diddly dee, Dad would say, mocking the cadences his voice used to have.

My father grew up during a terrible economic period in Ireland. You have to understand how hard it is for an era to stand out as particularly terrible in Ireland. In the years after World War II, work was almost unheard of in the countryside, and would be for many more years to come. My family abandoned its home in Co. Louth and packed up for Dublin, TB capital of Europe at the time, hoping this would change their luck.

Everything was so gray there, was all my father ever said to me about it. Nothing but rain.

Hoping to scrounge up enough cash to send for his family, my grandfather left on his own for New York. Two years of toil were needed to make this a reality. My father was soon transplanted from grungy but quiet Dublin to clean but noisy Queens. A spit's length from the A train that never stopped rumbling day or night. In a country that supposedly spoke the same language as him, he was made fun of by his new classmates for an accent he never knew he had before.

For one their first family outings in America, my grandfather thought it might be fun to check out the St. Patrick's Day parade. In the Ireland of the day, St. Patrick's Day was a solemn, almost holy occasion. You went to church and you had dinner with your family and you contemplated the bold Fenian men who laid down their lives for Kathleen NiHoulihan. Nobody was prepared for the kind of bacchanal that was the New York St. Patrick's Day parade.

My father was horrified. Everyone was visibly and unashamedly drunk, including the cops who were supposed to be keeping an eye on things. People screaming. Fist fights breaking out. Puke piling just shy of garbage cans. Fifth Avenue lined with red-haired louts competing for unilaterally declared competitions in obnoxiousness. This was how you were supposed to celebrate your heritage? By demonstrating how disgusting you could be?

Shock slowly transformed itself into anger. My father wondered how many of these people were actually from Ireland, or had an idea of what he had just left. The grinding poverty. The crippling fealty to traditional mores. The self-destructive impulse to drive away its best artists. All they could see were Aran sweaters and shamrocks and green-tinted beer, things my father knew nothing about in all his 12 years in Erin. Lies my father decided he never wanted to be a party to.

That was when my father started to lose his accent.

About the Author
Matthew Callan blogs daily at MSN Sports Filter. He has contributed to the NY Press, NPR, and "Excelsior You Fathead", a biography of Jean Shepherd. His Freezerbox piece "The Lemon Pledge" was given honorable mention in the 2003 edition of "Best American Non-Required Reading," and his fiction has been shortlisted for contests in Zoetrope: All-Story, Bomb magazine, and other publications.
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