St. Patrick’s Day – When Far Away Fields Truly Are Greener

This is the article I wrote for the Orlando Sentinel, published March 17, 2015. Link below.

The Irish have a long history of immigration. We’ve been coming to the shores of America for hundreds of years now, and in 1993, when I was in my early 20s, I joined the slew. My father had encouraged me to leave my hometown of Cork and venture across the Atlantic, “to seize the power and opportunity of youth, and to be brave with my life,” as he put it. Neither of us truly wanted me to go, but opportunity was scarce in Ireland in those days, so I did what so many young people in Ireland did at that time, and left.Irish people, by virtue of a long history of both good cause and willingness to leave their native land, have an advantage over most other emigrant groups — the Irish pub, and the fact that there’s at least one in just about every city in the world. Downtown Orlando had three popular Irish pubs back then: Mulvaney’s, Kate O’Brien’s and Scruffy Murphy’s. I headed to Scruffy’s and left with my first American job.

Working with other young Irish in Scruffy’s, while getting my bearings in Orlando, helped ease the transition. There were more cultural differences than I had expected. One, which had particular bearing on my new job, was the way Americans drank. In Ireland, drunkenness was somewhat of an annoying byproduct of drinking while talking. In America, people showed up and wanted shots. I couldn’t believe the amount of Jagermeister and Goldschlager that Scruffy’s burned through in a weekend.

But that helped with the other American tradition I was growing fond of — tips.

As March 17 drew near, the seasoned staff tried to prepare me for the fact that my first American St. Patrick’s Day would illustrate another big cultural difference. It was primarily a religious holiday in Ireland, and so my previous St. Patrick’s Days were sedate, mass-going affairs made different only by the bunch of shamrock pinned to my lapel.

With that as past experience, the 12-hour onslaught of sweaty, green-clad, beer-swilling crush that I experienced in Scruffy’s on that first St Patrick’s Day was incomprehensible to me. With Irish music blasting, I balanced my heavy tray and pushed my way through the emerald throngs, white sneakers soaked green in a 2-inch lake of spilled beer, and I wondered if it would ever end.

All the while, I marveled at the idea of so many Americans devoting an entire day to celebrating my little country, so far away. Of course, I did have a sneaking suspicion that a love of Ireland wasn’t entirely the motivation for all the partying, but still, I couldn’t help but feel smugly validated in my Irishness.

In the 20-plus years since I arrived, much has changed. My husband, Tom, and I have become Americans and are busy raising our three American children. Our pub days have dwindled. Mulvaney’s, Kate’s and Scruffy’s have been replaced by Lizzie’s and The Celt. While there was a time when I felt I knew every Irish person in Orlando, I can’t say that today. If someone’s in trouble, though, we rally around. Orlando’s Irish have a Consul in Orlando now, as well as an Irish-American Chamber of Commerce. We have become a larger and more-distant, but better-connected group.

Though I never did ascribe to the shot thing, the cultural differences seem less now — in fact, I’m as likely to be pulled up for them in Cork as in Orlando. I certainly don’t balk at raising a green beer on St. Patrick’s Day, though a pint of the black stuff is my preference. I love that my native country, for whatever reason, is the focus of major celebrations on March 17 every year. My children get to revel in their Irish heritage, while also appreciating their bountiful American lives.

My father visits us in Orlando often. He looks at the life we have built, and he says that our bravery has been rewarded. I tend to agree.

Cathy Tobin of Orlando has been a Montessori teacher since 1994 and is working on a graduate degree in educational leadership.

Copyright © 2015, Orlando Sentinel

http://www.orlandosentinel.com/opinion/os-ed-st-patricks-irish-celebration-031715-20150316-story.html

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The Agony of Saint Patty

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The Irish have made their way across the Atlantic Ocean to American shores since the 1600s.  Today, over thirty-three million Americans proudly identify themselves as being of Irish descent. In fact, it would be a rarity for a native Irish person to set foot on U.S. soil without encountering at least one American interested in relaying information about their own distant relatives from county something or other. Quite a turn around from the experience of the first few native Irish to make the trip, when being from Ireland wasn’t considered such a boast-worthy condition. The Irish however, not generally known for their sensitivity, persisted in coming and now there are enough Americans with some bit of Irish DNA somewhere in their gene pools to warrant a good annual celebration of all things Irish.

Growing up in Ireland my memories of Saint Patrick’s Day involved having a bunch of shamrock pinned to my lapel, being made to go to mass, and then standing around in the cold and rain on the streets of Cork city watching the parade (a fairly uninspiring procession of tractors pulling hastily decorated trailers) go by. The happiest part of the celebration for me was a day off school. It was only after I emigrated to the U.S. in the early 1990s that I discovered the true importance of St. Patrick’s Day.

St. Patrick’s Day has been a celebrated enthusiastically in America since the late eighteenth century. There is something about being far from home that makes people more patriotic than they ever felt when nestled in the bosom of the mother land. While Ireland’s first St. Patrick’s Day parade didn’t occur until the 1930s, the first parade in New York hails back to the late seventeen hundreds, and Savannah’s parade has been on the go since 1824.  Shortly after my departure the Irish Government decided to use St. Patrick’s Day to showcase Irish culture, and it became a big deal in Ireland too.

I arrived in Orlando, just a year before the World Cup of 1994 brought a new wave of Irish to the area. My very first job in Orlando was in an Irish bar downtown, Scruffy Murphy’s. The more seasoned staff tried to prepare me for the bedlam that would accompany my first American St. Patrick’s Day, but there was nothing they could have done or said that would have allowed me to grasp the magnitude of it.  The crush of “Irish”, the wearing of the green, the drinking of the green, the drunkenness.  I just couldn’t wrap my mind around so many people out to celebrate my little country, so far away. It took a while for it to dawn on me that there was very little genuine celebration of Ireland going on in Scruffy’s that day, that it was more about a national excuse to party, but I still felt personally appreciated and validated in my quiet suspicions of superiority.

My Irish experience of St. Patrick’s Day had nothing at all to do with ostentatious parades, green rivers, green beer and all day celebrations, but I embraced the traditions of my new country. I have to admit that I initially balked a little at the green beer situation, preferring a pint of the black stuff, but eventually assimilated it into my growing American consciousness. Drunkenness, green beer, partying – OK, I can ascribe to all that.  But there’s one thing that I have yet been able to embrace, and I know that I am not alone in my abhorrence.  It’s one little word that comes around every March, and has the power to turn the stomachs of Hibernians everywhere – Patty.

Allow me to try to explain. If your name should happen to be Patrick, I’m sure you wouldn’t be too upset about having it casually shortened to Pat or Paddy.  But Patty?  Patty is a girl’s name.  Patty is a burger.  Patty is something you might step on in a field. Patty is not a man’s name, and certainly not the name of the patron saint of Ireland. To help you understand the affront, picture Liam Neeson as St. Patrick.  Now project yourself back in time to Ireland circa the mid 400s.  You are exploring the waters and the wilds and happen to run into the impressive and pious man.  “Hello Patty”, you greet him.  Think about it.  He’s not going to be impressed. I imagine you’d be dispatched as quickly and decisively as the snakes.

Paddy derives from Padraig, which is the Irish for Patrick. It’s one of the two accepted shortenings of the name, the other being Pat. Digging into our less than auspicious beginnings in America, the Irish were derogatorily referred to as Paddies. It was a Paddy Wagon you see, not a Patty Wagon.  The Paddy thing is something we’ve come to accept with a grudging affection.  If it had been Patty, however, I think we’d still be having a problem.

So my dear Americans, I love your country so much that it’s now my country too. I thank you for your embrace of my native land and your love of all things Irish.  I derive great pleasure from people I meet who are anxious to link their heritage to mine.  I will indeed be drinking green beer with you on March 17th, but, I beg you, it’s St. Patrick’s Day, it’s Paddy’s Day, you can even, at a stretch call it St. Pat’s. But please, do us a favor and spare us the agony of Saint Patty.

Green-Fingered Belly Dancer Retires

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Rita had a special drawer.  She told my father about it when he took her home for a quick visit the day they let her out of hospital.  She pointed to it, almost apologetically, as though it was self-indulgent for her to bother him with it.  “Just in case”, she said, with feigned lightness.  Dad told her not to be ridiculous, and they watered the plants and collected the post and he took her back to his house in Waterfall.  She stayed there with him, out in the quiet countryside, soaking up the sun by the sliding glass doors in the living room during the day, and watching TV by the fire at night, her chair piled high with cushions to help alleviate the pain in her back.

It didn’t suit Rita to be sick.  Even at 82, she was doggedly independent.  She lived alone, maintained a half acre of garden, and often took off on solo jaunts around West Cork and Kerry.  When she did take a travelling companion with her, the stories were legendary.  Rita not only stopped to smell the roses, she cut slips off them, arranged them and brought them into the nearest pub for a drink.  My cousin Orla once recounted a drive to Ballinskelligs with Rita that took nine hours instead of the usual two; no place of interest along the way was left unvisited and a speed of 60 km per hour was never exceeded.

Rita was not only an adventurer, but she was a rascal.  She had a highly developed sense of fun.  She had the spirit of a child and this drew all my cousins and I to her when we were children. She never married, despite two reported proposals, but she engaged her nieces and nephews with a love at least as deep as a mother’s.  When other adults shoo’d us away, Rita sought us out. She lavished us with tales of the fairies, she conducted countryside tours that filled us with wonder, she sat with us, and listened. Visits to her house in Rathpeacon were magical.  She amassed a huge collection of records on her travels around the world.  Her preference was for jazz, Flamenco and belly dancing music. She had drawers full of scarves and hats and necklaces which we’d adapt into fanciful costumes and dance around her living room, falling over in fits of breathless laughter.

Rita was ageless, as she was timeless. We thought she was eternal. But Rita’s back pain was the result of ovarian cancer. She’d had the pain for a couple of years, but by the time her doctor realized that it wasn’t related to a past car accident, it was too late for Rita. She went into Cork University Hospital for tests at the beginning of February 2015, and they kept her there.  She walked out of her house that morning expecting to be back later that afternoon, and she only ever returned once more, with my father that day when she shyly pointed out “the drawer”.  Two weeks after diagnosis, Rita was dead. My sister and I rushed across the Atlantic to try to get to see her in time to say goodbye, but we were a few hours short.  We were devastated, but our cousins told us that the day before Rita told them that she didn’t want Audrey and I to see her in pain.  She made her exit, stage right, before we had to.  The wonderful staff at CUH, who had fallen in love with the never complaining, always smiling Rita Walsh, allowed her to lie in her hospital bed until we got there to say our good byes. I sat next to her bed and tearfully read aloud the letters my three children in Florida had given me for her. Her magic had seeped through and touched the next generation as surely as it had touched ours.

I’m not sure how we could have truly believed that it could have been contained, but in a way my brother, sisters, cousins and I always felt that Rita’s magic was reserved solely for us. Not only did it spill through the Walsh generations, but it clearly impacted everyone around her. So, as it played out, my father did have call to access the special drawer that Rita had reluctantly pointed to when they visited her house.  Inside were the memories of a lifetime.  Many of the countless documents demonstrated the impact of Rita, but one in particular stood out. When she retired after decades of service at Ernst and Young in Cork city, one of her co-workers composed an newspaper style announcement declaring her departure.  Dad found it in that drawer. Its headline shouted, “Green-fingered Belly Dancer to Quit”. The announcement cited Rita’s “excellent rendition of an Eastern Belly Dancer” at various work functions and also her Folies Bergeres quality performance of “Patricia the Stripper”.  Ah, Patricia the Stripper!  It was Rita’s party piece. While others of her generation might fall to a version of Danny Boy or The Banks, when called upon for a song, Rita would spring to her feet and launch into Patricia. If there was a long curtain in the vicinity, all the better.  She would utilize it as a dramatic prop, arm peeking out, leg extended, hips wiggling.  She gave it gusto and even in her late seventies, Rita’s version of Patricia brought everyone to their feet.

Rita’s funeral services were bound to be a celebration of her life more than a mourning of her death.  It was standing room only at her removal at O’Connors on Shandon Street. People who didn’t know her in life, but who had come out of respect for one relation or another, marveled how an unmarried and childless woman of 82 could pack a house like that.  My brother revealed that in one uncharacteristically fatalistic conversation with Rita during her initial stay at CUH, she had asked him to a favor.  He complied and opened her funeral services in Blackpool church with a soulful version of Abba’s, “I Believe in Angels”.  The priest, concerned about the secular nature of the song, had him sing it before the services officially began.  I had the honor of writing her eulogy, and delivering it, again before the religious part of the funeral began, because though it focused on Rita’s spirit it wasn’t specifically related to her soul.  It seems that separating the secular from the non-secular has become a bit of a thing.  But, in its entirety, the service was beautiful.  Well known Irish soprano, Cara O’Sullivan, soulfully and reverently sang through the mass, giving Rita a heart rendering final serenade.

Later, at St. Finbarr’s cemetery, on a cold, wet and gray Thursday afternoon, Rita was laid to rest with her mother and father. Her coffin was put in with her head where her feet should go, and though most of us noticed, in true Cork style, no one thought to question it. As the mourners started to drift away, my sister, brother and brother in law lingered at the grave, not anxious to speak that final goodbye.  It was a bleak and heavy moment. Suddenly, spontaneously these words slipped out of my mouth; Denis is a menace, with his, “Anyone for tennis?”.  My sister took up the tune and then my brother, and the three of us stood there, ankle deep in the same earth that our Rita had just been planted in, our voices gaining momentum. Hips shook, arms gestured, feet stomped.  We gave it gusto and when we were finished we looked at each other, smiled and knew that we had just stepped out of a moment that we would remember forever.  Though anyone passing by would have thought our performance extremely odd (and likely highly inappropriate), but we knew that the Green-fingered Belly Dancer had just been given the most fitting final tribute possible.

Fireside Perspectives

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It had been a very tough few days.  Don’t get me wrong now, we were in Cork, so even though it was the saddest of circumstances we still managed to have some fun.  But overwhelmingly, between the fact that one of my favorite people in the world had made an exit (untimely, even at 82), spouse and child abandonment, and a bunch of passport and school work issues, it was a tough week.

My sister Audrey and I, both over unexpectedly from the States, sat on the couch at my Dad’s house a few evenings ago, completely worn out.  “How are you?”, I asked her.  “Cranky” she replied.  “The dead Rita thing?”, I asked.  “Yup”, she nodded.  “I’m cranky too”, said I, “In fact I’m writing a detailed Facebook post about it this very minute”.  Here’s what I wrote:

Top 10 Reasons Why I’m Cranky:

1. Contacted US Embassy and told them that Dept of State has been useless when it came to helping me solve emergency travel dilemmas, but that the Irish government has been amazing. Fearing spell in Guantanamo.

2. Received warm and helpful phone call from US Embassy within three minutes of hitting send, because, it turns out, (we) Americans are a touch competitive. Problem not made better:

3. Learned that I can’t reenter the States on an Irish passport if I have an American passport and I will need to go to a Thursday appointment in Dublin (3 hours drive from where I currently am) to get an emergency travel document.

4. Heard from the Irish passport office that my Irish passport is ready for collection in Cork (where I am today) on Friday (when I will now be in Dublin).

5. Am concerned about the logistics of wrangling masses of luggage from Cork to Dublin City Center and out to Ballsbridge and then to Ranelagh.

6. I have turned in no graduate degree work this week, and course seems to have vanished.

7. Airlines apparently won’t take your word for it that people have died and need death certificates to change flights without charging astronomical fees, so my poor grieving father was marched into the Registrars office today to get Rita’s death certificate. This was not a fun outing. Rita being dead is beginning to seem like a permanent situation. We’re giving her one more week to pull up.

8. Have eaten too much Tayto and am possibly going to have to now buy two airline seats to get to the States, even if they do deign to allow me back in.

9. Penney’s made me buy clothes I can neither afford nor have any room in my suitcase for.

10. Bank of America sent me a warm and helpful email today to remind me of that point.

Mood clearly not improved.

I hit Post and off my complaints went into cyberspace.  Quite a few friends were indulgent enough to offer words of support  A few commented that I could still make them laugh, even when complaining. However, as I read the replies I realized that I was sitting in front of the fire, in my Dad’s house in Cork, having been given leave from family and work to be present for my lovely Rita’s funeral.  I shut down the cranky post and put this in its place:

Things I am grateful for:

  1. Rita Walsh as part of my whole life minus one week.
  2. A husband and children who didn’t complain once about me skipping the country with just hours notice, plus a husband who never even blinked when I put a ridiculously expensive air fare on the credit card.
  3. A principal and co-workers who said, “Just go. We’ve got it under control”.
  4. An amazing Cork family – people who laugh a lot and make great memories together.
  5. A sister who neither snores nor kicks in the night and who isn’t too bad in the day either.
  6. A father, a brother and brother in law who open their doors and hearts to us without hesitation or notice.
  7. My Irish friends who simply showed up.
  8. Tayto.
  9. Penneys.
  10. Cork people – their warmth, their lack of formality, their sense of irreverence, and their wit.
  11. Having two homes and two countries even if it sometimes complicates the paperwork!

We all know it theoretically; everything is perspective.  That night, given my high levels of “woe is me”, I was proud of a particularly quick and solid turnaround in thinking.  Sure, it was a rough few days, and we were tired and cranky and sad, but sitting by our father’s fire in Waterfall, there was also much to be thankful for.

Leaving Cork

My first piece ever, was published in The Irish Examiner.bus 3

Leaving Cork is something I’d expect to be getting used to at this point.  I’ve been doing it seriously for 21 years now. That first time was the worst.  Right before leaving for the airport my Dad and I took a walk down a country boreen by his house in Waterfall, and I waited for him to ask me not to go.  I would have changed my mind so easily then.  But he didn’t.  Instead he talked about the power of youth and opportunity, and the importance of being brave with your life.  That was all very inspiring of course, but what I really wanted him to say was, “Leave? Don’t be ridiculous.  Come back inside and we’ll have a cup of tea”. He didn’t though, and I sobbed and sighed all the way to Shannon, and then heaved my way, in a snotty, drippy mess through immigration.  How did they even let me on that plane?  It was the early 1990s though, the Irish economy was bad, and US immigration officers were probably well used to the sight of heartbroken Irish youngsters setting out to try to make a better fate for themselves in the new world.

It’s been twenty one years now since I left Cork to start my new life in Florida – I know, you suddenly don’t feel so sorry for me anymore, but leaving Cork has become only marginally easier over the years. As I write, I am sitting on the Aircoach from Cork to Dublin. This time I was home for a funeral.  Only the second funeral I’ve had to rush home for over the years, but a very hard loss. Leaving my father behind, knowing that he is now not only bereft of me (and my sister and brother, who both left Cork in time), but also his main partner in crime, his sister Rita, is just so difficult.  I am at that awkward age now where funerals in my parents generation are becoming increasingly common place, and I can’t help but think about how leaving Cork that very first time has taken so many days away from us already.

Whatever the reason for the visit, the rituals of leaving remain the same.  The day before I mentally check  to see if I have met up with everyone I intended to, and eaten everything I meant to. If not, action plans are put into place. The night before I start to gather the mass that began to flow out of my suitcase, like slow seeping lava, since the day of my arrival.  With every day that passes it has poured out in increasing volume.  For some reason, and without fail, I catch myself singing John Denver’s Leaving on a Jet Plane quietly to myself as I go through this process. Contents of suitcase have at least tripled in size, a fact I seem to never remember to plan for when doing the initial packing.  The expansion is fueled by too many trips to Penney’s and Dunnes (shoes that I absolutely did not need, but were only four euro – you’d have to), tons of Cadbury’s chocolate – Twirls, Crunchies, Flakes, boxes of Barry’s Tea Bags (the one Cork commodity that I have not been able to move on from in the past two decades), Sudocrem and the all important 20 pack of Tayto, destined to be reduced to crumbs within two seconds of being packed, as I inevitably sit on the suitcase in order to get it to close.  Zippers strain, and not just on my luggage. The fear of the weighing scale at the airport is totally trumped by the fear of the one in my bathroom in Orlando.  Not only has the luggage expanded but there has also been a personal expansion; the inevitable result of ten days of Seize the Day style indulgence in Clonakilty sausages and pudding, Tom Durcan spiced beef, crusty bread rolls, brown bread, trips to KC’s in Douglas, and an immodest amount of pints of Murphy’s. That other kind of excess baggage is going to take a more sustained and even less pleasant effort to deal with.

The ritual of packing is a good distraction from the reality of the departure.  Used to be my aunt Rita would come over the night before I left and give moral support as I engaged in the ritual. Not this time though; Rita’s in St. Finbarr’s now.  She was buried with her head where her feet should have gone, and though we all noticed it at the time, in good Cork fashion, no one thought to question it.  So I got the packing done on my own last night.  Dad likes to avoid that part of the proceedings so we can stay in the moment a while longer.  Packing complete we sit by the fire watching TV, as if nothing out of the ordinary is happening in the morning.

I did do better at hiding my tears from Dad as he drove me in to Patrick’s Quay to catch the bus this morning. I held it together, singing Neil Diamond loudly with him on the way into town. Because we were running late there was only time for a quick goodbye on the Quay,  “Thank you. I love you”, I said, grateful for the time crunch because I could not bear even the suggestion that he might have tears in his eyes.  Off he drove alone, and I swung my bags onto the bus.

If my father was a selfish man, I imagine that he might have felt more inclined to ask me to stay this morning than that first time I left him.  He might have suggested that we turn around and go home for a cup of Barry’s more readily.  But he’s not, and now I have a husband and children and a life on the other side of the Atlantic.  It’s a good life, and I am blessed to have it, but despite my 21 years away it becomes increasingly obvious that my spiritual home is the one by the Lee, and it looks as though leaving Cork is never going to get any easier.