Saturday, February 06, 2016

The Harp Beneath The Crown- With The Chieftains In Mind

The Harp Beneath The Crown- With The Chieftains In Mind

By Sam Eaton

“I’m as Irish as the next goddam bogger,” shouted Jack Callahan, “I just don’t like to wear it on my sleeve. I don’t have to break out in song every time I think about what my maternal grandfather, Daniel Patrick Riley and that should be Irish enough for you, called the “old sod.” For him it was the old sod since his own grandparents had come over on the “famine” ships in the 1840s after the bloody Brits had starved them out of County Kerry with their wicked enclosure policies so they could have grazing land for their sheep or something and they, the Brits hoarding enough food for a full larder for everyone and the starved broken bodied piling up on the roads after eating tree bark or something you wouldn’t feed a pig. At least that was the way my grandfather told me his grandfather told him.” 

Jack’s whole uproar over his heritage, over his bloody green flag, harp beneath the crown heritage had been brought about innocently enough as he and Bradley Fox, a friend whom he had known since his school days at Riverdale High, sat in The Plough and Stars bar on Massachusetts Avenue in Cambridge when Bradley had mentioned that the Chieftains would again be doing their yearly series of shows around Saint Patrick’s at the Wang Center in downtown Boston and had assumed that Jack would once again jump at the chance to show his green side.

And that outburst was the way that Jack had answered him with some put-upon air of righteous indignation that he had to prove himself and his Irish-ness. Prove it he added to a half-breed like Bradley whose own father was descended from the bloody Brits, had only with fire and determination on his mother’s part had he been brought up in the true church rather than some heathen Protestant chapel with those god-awful hail high Jehovah psalms beseeching an unjust god to forgive them their bloody heathen sins, and who had only been saved by his mother’s full-blooded Irish lineage (his mother’s great-great grandfather having come over on the famine ships with Jack’s maternal great-great-great grandfather if that was the right number of “greats”)from being totally ostracized in the whole neighborhood by the old “shawlies” who commented on every little deviation. So no this year he would not be going to the annual concert, maybe would not even go to the Saint Patrick’s Parade over in South Boston which he had been going to since he was a kid although less frequently over the previous few years as he had lost patience with the drunks, the rowdies and the one-day-a-year Irish. The Polish Irish they would call them when they were kids, the Poles being the other big ethnic group in the town, the ones who worked on the watch factories that had dotted the river in those days. They would come into school on Saint Pat’s Day all in green calling themselves MacWalecki or something. That was the way the two old friends left it that night, left like they did many a blow-up argument with a semi-smile since half the time after a certain hour or a certain number of whiskeys they would collapse in on their arguments. This one had that same fate.            

[What Bradley did not know that night, did not know for several more weeks, was that Chrissie (nee McNamara) Callahan, Jack’s wife of many more years than any of them wanted to count and who had been the classic high school sweethearts was giving signals that she wanted to leave Jack now that the kids were grown and they were “empty-nesters.” Wanted to in her words “find herself” before it was too late and that she had felt like a stranger in Jack’s presence. That fate weighted heavily on Jack since Chrissie had been his rock through those many years and he was not sure what he would do if she left him high and dry like that. Tried to argue her out of her thoughts always going back to the usually tried and true argument about how they had first gotten together and that night had pledged their eternal love. Bradley had known that story since he had been at Molly’s Diner the night it happened. Jack had had a crush on Chrissie since sixth grade when she had invited him to her twelfth birthday party and as such things went at “petting parties” she had given him a big kiss that he never really forgot about. But being shy and self-conscious he never pursued the matter. Time passed and as they entered high school it turned out that Jack was a hell of a football player who led his team to the state division championship senior year.

So Jack could have had any girl he wanted from sophomore year on. But he still retained his Chrissie thing and his shyness. Chrissie had been harboring some such feelings as well although as more outgoing and a beautiful girl she did not lack for dates and the evil intentions of guys. One Friday night in the later fall of sophomore year though she had had enough and knowing that Jack and the boys would be at Molly’s playing the latest rock hits on Molly’s jukebox while having their burgers and fries she went into Molly’s front door, drew a bee-line to Jack, and to Jack’s lap. The way Bradley always described it later was that Chrissie had had such a look of determination on her face that it would have taken the whole football team to get her off that lap. A look a Jack said that it would take the whole football team and the junior varsity too to get her off his lap. So that night their eternal love thing started. Jack had told Bradley in confidence that he could have had anything Chrissie had to offer that night when they left Molly’s for Jack to take her home. That would come later, the next spring when on Saint Patrick’s’ Day night after the parade was over and after they had both consumed too many illegal beers they went over to nearby Carson Beach and Chrissie had given Jack all she had to offer. So those mist of memories had been were driving Jack dyspeptic response to Bradley’s question.]              

Later that night after Jack got back to Hingham where he had his business, his Toyota car dealership (he was perennially Mr. Toyota in Eastern Massachusetts), and his too big house, Chrissie asleep upstairs (in one of the kids’ bedrooms, so that was the way things were just then) turned the light on and went into his den. Sat down on his easy chair and turned the light off. He had just wanted to think in the gentle dark about how he was going keep Chrissie with him but he found that he started to drift back to the days in Riverdale when he was a kid and being Irish meant a lot to him, felt he had to uphold the Easter, 1916 brotherhood, had to buck the trend that his parents and their generation had bought into-becoming vanilla Americans. Losing the old country identities that men like his grandfather held too with granite determination in the flow of too many other trends driving them away from what they had been, where they had come from in this great big immigrant-driven country.           

All the funny little rites of passage. First of all listening to his grandfather’s stories about the heroic men of 1916 (women too but they slipped through cracks in his telling the womenfolk being held in the background in that generation), above all James Connelly who had place of pride on his grandfather’s piazza wall. Then the times once his grandfather was in his cups a bit the singing of all the old songs, some he had never heard of then but which later he would find were ancient songs going back to Cromwell’s bloody hellish times. Later when he and his friends, usually not Bradley since his father was adamant that he not attend some frivolous doings, would sneak out of school, walk to the bus which would take them to the Redline subway station and over to South Boston and the Saint Pat’s Parade. See that day, March 17th was a holiday in Boston and Suffolk County, not Saint Pat’s Day but Evacuation Day, the day the colonial patriots drove the bloody Brits out of Boston during the American Revolution. But Riverdale in Middlesex County did not get a holiday hence the sneaking out of school.

Of course of all the Saint Pat’s Days the night he took all Chrissie had to offer stood well above all others. He thought about how Chrissie, all prim and proper on the outside, at first refused to skip school until he made a fuse over it that he wouldn’t have any fun without her. That got to her, and so they went with Jimmy Jenkins, Frankie Riley and a couple of other girls whose names he could not remember over to South Boston. They ran into one of Jack’s older cousins who gave them some beers. At first Chrissie balked at drinking the stuff but Jack said just take a sip and if she didn’t like it that was that. Well she liked it well enough that day (which was probably the last time she had beer since thereafter it was respectfully Southern Comfort, mixed gin drinks, and later various types of wine). They drank most of the afternoon, had somehow lost the rest of the crowd from Riverdale and Jack saw his big play. He asked Chrissie if she wanted to go to the beach to sit on the seawall and watch the ocean before going home. She didn’t resist that idea.  So they went to Carson Beach as it was starting to get dark, went to a secluded area near the L Street Bathhouse, and started to “make out.” Jack began to fondle her breasts and she didn’t push him away, didn’t push him away as he put his hand between her thighs either, actually held his hands there. And so they as they saying went after a Howlin’ Wolf song they had heard on Molly’s jukebox did the “do the do” for first time. He blushed as he thought about that first time and how they, foolish high school kids, didn’t have any “protection,” didn’t even think about such an idea. Later they got wise but then they were as na├»ve about sex and what to do, or not do, about it as any two Irish kids could be.

Jack as he sat there in dark then thought enough of this or he might head up those stairs, kids’ room or not. But above all that night he thought about his sainted grandmother, Anna, by his account, by all accounts, a saint if for no other reason than she had put up with his grandfather and his awful habits but also because she was the sweetest woman in the whole neighborhood and was not, it bears repeating, not afraid of the “shawlies” and their vicious grapevine (which had even caught wind of his and Chrissie’s trysts although they denied the whole thing every time somebody mentioned it-they were after all as good  virginal Catholics as anybody else in the neighborhood so there). He then remembered how when he was young she would sing the songs from the old country while she was doing the washing (the old-fashioned way with scrub board and wringer, clothesline-dried), Brendan on the Moor, Kevin Barry, The Rising of the Moon, and many others. He would always request The Coast of Malabar, ask her to sing it twice when she was in the mood. Such a song of being away from home. He always loved it when the Chieftains played the song as a part of their show.          

Jack had that song on his mind the next morning when after Chrissie had come down for her morning coffee he asked her, half expecting to be turned down, if she wanted to go to the Chieftains concert in March. She brightened and said “yes, yes of course.” Later that day he sheepishly called Bradley and told him to order three tickets for the Chieftains concert. Bradley chuckled. Enough said.         

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