Reflections on St. Patrick’s Day

Whether in Montauk, where I grew up, or in New York City, where I was born and lived for 20-plus years, St. Patrick’s Day never conjured Ireland for me, or much of anything about it. Instead, I thought of the plastic bowler hats and vests of uncertain, cheap material, each a gaudier shade of green; of wasted 20-somethings on daylong benders in the city; of rivers of vomit running in the streets (and puddles of same on the floors of unfortunate taxis), and of the occasional, or frequent, fistfight. Is this something to be proud of?

‘To be Irish is to know the world will break your heart.’ 
                                                                             Daniel P. Moynihan

I long ago formed a resistance — of one. On a typical St. Patrick’s Day, I would come home from work in New York and put on “Irish Heartbeat,” a magnificent collaboration of the Chieftains, purveyors of traditional music from the old country, and Van Morrison, the pride of Belfast, in the Occupied Territories.

To this day, some of the songs on “Irish Heartbeat” bring tears, and I’m reminded of Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s observation that “to be Irish is to know that in the end the world will break your heart.”

“On Raglan Road on an autumn day, I saw her first and knew,” Van the Man sings on “Raglan Road,” lyrics by the poet Patrick Kavanagh. “That her dark hair would weave a snare, that I might one day rue/I saw the danger, yet I walked, along the enchanted way/And I said let grief be a falling leaf, at the dawning of the day.” Are you getting misty?

I never took much of a liking to stout, so to this day, on the 17th of March, I forgo a pint of Guinness in favor of something that might instill even more pride, or dismay, in my departed ancestors: a glass of Jameson Irish whiskey, neat. Maybe two. Possibly three. Okay, one more, but 16that’s where I draw the line.

By then, it will be late, and I will slip into melancholy to the strains of “Carrickfergus.”

 

My childhood days bring back sad reflections
To happy times spent so long ago
My boyhood friends and my own relations
Have all passed on like the melting snow
But I’ll spend my days in endless roving
Soft is the grass and my bed is free
Oh, to be home now in Carrickfergus
On the long road down to the salty sea

 

Every once in a while, however, this carefree youth turned cynical wet blanket smiles anew, when a memory of “happy times spent long ago” is jarred. Ah, “the long road down to the salty sea,” that is where I will begin.

The Montauk Friends of Erin was established in 1962, four years before my birth. Although The East Hampton Star puts the first Montauk St. Patrick’s Day Parade in 1947, when four men marched from the Blue Marlin restaurant to the Montauk Tavern, now known as Shagwong, the Friends of Erin held its first in 1963. Mike Egan was grand marshal.

I was not there, of course, or at the next few. But I recently came across a few Kodacolor prints of a long-ago parade, and while the date stamped on the back of each has faded, I think they say 1969. Montauk has been something of an Irish haven since the early 1900s, when Irish and French fishermen and their families emigrated from Nova Scotia and established what was known as the Fishing Village on Fort Pond Bay. It was wiped out in the 1938 Hurricane, but people named McDonald and Burke and Grimes have been there ever since.

I remember most if not all of the parades through the hamlet when I was a kid at the Montauk Public School, throughout the 1970s. I was in a few of them, as a Cub Scout or member of the school’s nascent marching band.

As spectator or participant, what stands out is just how simple and small everything was. In those pictures from the late 1960s, the building now occupied by Chase Bank is under construction. The hardware store, on the same block, is there, but only green grass stands between it and the bank building on the corner. There appear to be no spectators at all on that side of Main Street.

My parents, brother, and I surely took the Buick and the long road down along the salty sea from Hither Hills to town, and stood on Main Street with, I guess, many if not most of Montauk’s year-round residents. There were police and fire brigades in dress uniforms, and fire trucks, and majorettes, and a clown or two, distributing candy to the children.

I don’t remember anything else. Certainly not drunken revelers, spilling out of Long Island Rail Road cars by the thousands, as would characterize parades to come. Back then, the police were free to march. I’m glad the town has taken steps to minimize the chaos and restore the day to something resembling its family-friendly origins, albeit on a far larger scale.

In the mid-1980s, I came to know many Irish of my generation here in Montauk. Some 20 years earlier, young adults had started coming to Montauk for the summer when Mary Gosman, who was born in Ireland, hired two of her nephews to work at Gosman’s restaurant. Over the years, word spread about summertime employment, and more and more Irish came to work at Gosman’s and elsewhere. Some never left.

Those with whom I worked, at Gosman’s Clam Bar, and socialized, often at the nearby Tipperary Inn, were among the most kind and gentle people I have known. Still in love with education but weary of schooling, I quietly neglected to return to college one year, instead flying to Shannon Airport, destined to drink hugely (but responsibly, more or less), hitchhike around the Emerald Isle more than once, run out of money halfway into the expedition, behold breathtaking, terrible beauty, enjoy the company of countless godly souls who easily and cheerfully befriend strangers, and, at the same time, begin to know myself. Ireland was simpler and far smaller, and landing there felt like going back in time.

Like the dates stamped on the back of those prints, my memory has faded. I can’t remember who it was, but I recall a discussion about St. Patrick’s Day with one of those summer visitors from Ireland, and how it was observed in the old country. “We look at you in America,” the Irishman said.

I cannot attest to it, but according to yourirish.com, which offers history and information about Ireland, he spoke the truth. The day in the old country is for church and a family meal, followed by watching televised parades taking place in other countries. “Alcohol was rarely consumed on this important day and it wasn’t until the 1970s when pubs were allowed to open by law,” the site says. The annual parade in Dublin began only in 1995, and only to boost tourism.

And we in America, of all ethnicities, imbibing irrepressibly in our plastic bowler hats. Please excuse me while I reach for “Irish Heartbeat” and a quiet glass of Jameson.