Photo credit: Dean Molyneaux. Creative Commons license here.

Working Class Hero: My Irish Father On Saint Patrick’s Day

My favorite photo of my late father is from a Saint Patrick’s Day parade, circa 1988, in Galway City, Ireland.

Unlike in our other family snapshots, in that March 17th parade photo, Dad is actually smiling. There he is driving his black lorry and all kitted out in his Córas Iompar Éireann (the Irish government transport company) uniform.

I wasn’t there that day. Two years earlier, in 1986, I had emigrated to America.

Back then, Dad was in his early 60s and on the downslide toward his state retirement pension. But in this photo he has a boyish grin that says: Just look at me representing my company in the St. Patrick’s parade.

A few months after that snapshot day, I was on a transatlantic visit home and packing my bags for the return flight to America when Dad gave me his photo as a bon-voyage gift.

Usually, Dad left all the gift-buying and giving — as in, the Christmas cardigans and glossy birthday cards — to my late mother. But once I emigrated to America, he started slipping me little goodbye treasures that were just from him.

“Here,” he would say. “You’ll need this over there in America.”

His gifts were unorthodox, like that day when he came in from his vegetable garden bearing two heads of cabbage. He nodded toward my airport-bound suitcase and winked. “Sure, they’ll never spot these if you wrap them in something.”

Once, he gave me a little wooden peg that he had whittled himself. This homemade spool was wrapped in layers of thick white thread that he had salvaged from the burlap-style bags that came with our farm’s livestock feed. “Here. You’ll need strong thread over there in America.”

That day when he slipped me his only copy of his parade snapshot, I wondered why I, not his four stay-at-home children, got chosen for this photo that had made him so very proud.

Maybe the transatlantic TV newscasts told him that Saint Patrick’s was more of an American than an Irish celebration. Or, like the strong thread and the green cabbage, perhaps he wanted me to have an offshore whiff or taste of home.

Whatever his reasoning, my Dad was correct. As it turned out, to live in America I needed strong thread and lots of it.

After their Dublin honeymoon, my father and mother took over her parents’ (my maternal grandparents’) tiny farm. Soon into their marriage, Dad discovered that things were much less arable and live-able than originally understood. So he got himself trained and took the test for that lorry-driver’s gig and for what would become four decades’ of a two-job life (farming and lorry driving).

After the Galway Saint Patrick’s parade, if someone had invited Dad to join the city mayor and other dignitaries on the outdoor podium for the speeches and jiggy music, he would have refused to join in all that staged and amped-up Irishness.

Yet, by anyone’s measure, my father was a proud Irishman.

A native and fluent Irish speaker, he could recite long poems in English and Gaelic. He had a lovely tenor voice and a decent song repertoire. A gifted storyteller, he had a quick wit, a fine brain and a colorful turn of phrase.

In one anthropological account of his home or childhood parish, there’s an oral history reference to him, the dapper young singleton who played the accordion for the local parlor dances.

To him (and to me), worse than psychedelic Irishness was that showy or bombastic form of patriotism.

Once, I was about ten or eleven years old when the nighttime TV news reported on an IRA (Irish Republican Army) funeral in Belfast or Derry. This was during the heyday of the Northern Irish sectarian violence, so the funeral featured the usual flag-draped casket and the traditional IRA guard of honor marching in their camouflage uniforms and matching black berets.

“Ach!” My father flapped a hand at the TV screen. “Give half of them fellas a proper job and they’d have no time for parading around at funerals.”

More than symbols or slogans, more than waving flags or chanting for political candidates, Dad believed that the most patriotic thing you could do was to pay your way and feed your family. And, if one job or fix-it didn’t work out, then it was time to try Plan B.

Hence: his bon voyage gifts that nearly all carried a strong survivalist theme: You’ll need this in America.

Two years before his death, when he was already widowed and battling congestive heart failure, Dad’s transatlantic bon voyage gift turned extravagant. Rather than one of his homemade or home-grown presents, he pushed a small white envelope across the dinner table at me. Inside was a wad of crisp new bank notes.

“No,” I said, pushing the envelope back toward him. “You should spend your money on yourself, Dad. Remember all the long days and nights you spent in that lorry earning this money.”

Across the dining table he peered over his reading glasses at me — a sure sign of an oncoming retort or reprimand.

“What ‘long days and nights’ are you talking about? I loved that job. It was a big long holiday.”

So in my Saint Patrick’s Day snapshot there’s my Dad driving his lorry in the parade. True to form, he has signed up to spend our national Irish holiday working.

And smiling.

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