Here’s an essay I wrote about being an American and being Irish. It first ran a few St. Patty’s Days back in The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Thanks, Post-Gazette!
For one year, when I was a broke and itinerant flight attendant, I lived in a house with six Irish accountants. The house was in Forest Hills, Queens, a few subway stops from Manhattan. Having six housemates meant we could almost afford the rent. Having housemates who were accountants meant that everything from the cost of toilet paper to the heating bill was divvied up.
My housemates called the heating bill the “oil delivery fee.” They used words like gorgeous and brilliant when describing a plate of overcooked spaghetti. They believed, really believed, Guinness is good for you.
These housemates – five men and one woman – were Irish citizens. They found work and housing through an underground network that specialized in exporting Irish accountants. Before this, I’d thought Ireland’s chief exports were beer, The Pogues, blood sausage, and jokes about priests and donkeys. My housemates liked jokes, but hated blood sausage. They had many Irish friends in the city – all of them accountants, all of them living with other Irish accountants, all of them able to do long division and recite Yeats drunk.
A confession: I’d always thought of myself as Irish. And so I was happy to pay $600 a month to sleep on a futon on the floor and be among my own people. I’d been adopted by my Italian/Polish parents when I was a year old, and I knew a little about my ancestry. I clung to the Irish side of my lost past. I wore green on St. Patty’s day. I wore a Claddagh ring. I was proud of my Irish eyes. They curled into commas when I laughed. I read Yeats and Joyce and knew all the words to “Danny Boy.” Being Irish made me feel special, particularly during my teenage years. My parents didn’t understand me. How could they?
And now, all these years later, in Queens, with authentic Irish folk, I thought I would learn who I really was.
“My birth name’s Phelan,” I told my housemate Sinead. Sinead was lovely – blue-green eyes, dark hair, a laugh that could crack plates. We became good friends right away, which meant we told each other the truth.
“You’re not really Irish, you know,” Sinead said and patted my hand. “Americans put on green t-shirts and tennis shoes and say they’re Irish and it’s just not true. Irish people are Irish. Americans are American.”
“She’s right,” Brian, one of the other housemates, said. He’d overheard us from the kitchen, where he’d been frying ground meat. My housemates had dinner together at 7 p.m. every night. They took turns cooking. I never saw any of them make anything other than Spaghetti Bolognese. The recipe didn’t vary, no matter the chef — three jars of Prego, two pounds of ground meat, two pounds of spaghetti, one loaf of Wonder bread. When I wasn’t flying and it was my turn to cook, I’d try to mix things up – Chicken Romano, tacos, fajitas. But mostly, when I cooked, my housemates would nibble politely, and the next night we’d be back to Bolognese.
“Americans always want to be something they’re not,” Brian said. He poked his head out of the kitchen and pointed a wooden spoon our way. “That’s how you get shamrock knickers. You get ‘Kiss Me I’m Irish.’ You get, lord help us, green beer. It’s desecration, I tell you. Who does that to perfectly fine beer? It’s not right. To be Irish is to be Irish, and that’s the end of it.”
Brian was from Dublin. Sinead was from Galway. All but one of the housemates was from the south of Ireland, which meant they shared the same politics and generalized about Americans the way I generalized about the Irish.
One night, after Sinead had downed a few pints and had a fight with Paul the bartender at Yer Man’s pub, I was driving her home. I don’t know why, but Sinead decided to flip off a group of kids on Metropolitan Avenue. She rolled down her window, yelled “Ho there,” and stuck her middle finger out. The kids yelled back. One of them turned around, dropped his pants and mooned us.
Sinead was shocked.
“A finger,” she said, “does not equal an ass. A finger equals a finger. I will never understand you people. Never.”
And there was so much I didn’t understand back.
Take our housemate, Tony, for instance. Tony was from Belfast. This was a problem, since the housemates carried the troubles from their homeland with them. Sinead’s fight with Paul the bartender was over something political I didn’t grasp. Whatever it was made Sinead, a usually soft-spoken woman, shout. Sinead’s grandfather, I knew, had been a driver for Michael Collins, the founder of the I.R.A. Sinead’s family was deeply Catholic. I had no idea where Paul the bartender was from, exactly, or what his religious beliefs were. It would never have occurred to me to ask. Paul had an Irish accent. He worked at an Irish pub. Drunk women took off their bras and donated them to the collection that dangled like tongues over Paul’s head.
Paul often gave me wooden nickels to use for free drinks. He was kind and funny and called me “Love.”
Back at the house, I’d seen the fury Sinead had directed at Paul. It bubbled up whenever Tony was in the room. Tony was built like an eraser – stubby, with a square head and buzz-cut hair. His room was in the basement, next to the washer and dryer. The basement was concrete. Tony’s bed was a worn-down couch. Tony didn’t talk much. At dinner, he sat at the end of the table, head down. He ate fast, and usually got stuck with the dishes.
One day, because I wanted to understand, I asked a question. I’m not sure exactly how I phrased it, but I wanted to know the state of things between Ireland’s north and south. I knew the little I’d learned from history books and Brad Pitt movies, but I wanted to know the more personal side of things. How it affected people. My housemates, for instance.
What happened next – Tony lowered his head even more. The other housemates said some things. Brian said, “Isn’t that right, Tony? Isn’t it?” And Tony didn’t say anything. Until he did. I don’t remember what he said because it seemed like nothing, really. Maybe he agreed with Brian. Maybe he said he was finished. What was happening at that table was beyond me, though I’d set it off. Sinead said “That’s enough,” and Tony went trudging off to the basement. I wouldn’t see him for days.
I had a late flight that night, a Vegas red-eye. When I came home, Tony’s face was bruised. One eye was leaky and swollen shut.
When I asked what happened, he said, “I don’t know what you mean.” Then he stumbled back down to the basement.
Later Sinead would say the boys had a fight. They’d been drinking. They’d locked Tony in the basement. There was no bathroom down there, so after several hours, Tony used the washer. Later, when they unlocked the door and found what Tony had done, they beat him.
“That’s the beginning and end of it,” Sinead said. “Let it be.”
It had been my fault. I felt terrible. I’d like to say something here about privilege, and ignorance, what it does to people, but what it comes down to is my privilege, my ignorance, what it did to Tony and what it didn’t do to me.
Years later, I’d visit Sinead in Ireland. We’d travel around the country and Sinead would give me a gift, a drink coaster with the Phelan family crest on it.
“Phelan means little wolf in Gaelic,” she’d say and pat my hand.
The coaster was made out of cork. The crest had a deer head on top, a diamond pattern on the shield. I thought I should feel something profound, holding this link to my past, but I didn’t.
Once, back in New York, Sinead and I had our palms read by a woman in the EastVillage. The palm reader’s studio was all done up in red velvet. She wore bangles and gauze. She told Sinead, “You long for home.” She told me, “There are lines we’re born with, and lines we make for ourselves.” The first line, the one I was born with, was so faint I had to scrunch my palm to see it. Then she charged me $50, cash.
I stayed in Ireland for two weeks. Everywhere we’d go, we’d play a game Sinead invented called “Spot the American.” Sometimes it was easy – green t-shirt, tennis shoes, bag full of postcards. One thing I noticed — Americans take up a lot of space. We sprawl. We come from a big country, where we’re not used to holding anything, even our arms and legs, in. Our body language is open, as if we can absorb the whole world.
By the time we got to Belfast, that sad and troubled place, I’d order our drinks and food because Sinead was worried about her accent. Our game was trickier. We played until finally, in one pub, the only American to spot was me.