I know I am Irish because:
My living relatives swear they can see the red in my hair— no matter that I'm salt and pepper.
I ate boiled potatoes nearly every day of my childhood life.
I went to an Irish Catholic parochial school where the boys were lined up against the fence and Sister Corinne smeared dog shit on every one of their faces as punishment for taking the Lord's name in vain.
I can talk the birds out of the trees, and so could my mother, as I remember.
When I was 26, my Aunt Molly asked what I did for a living.
I told her I was a writer and she sneered, "Any Irishman can write— is that all you have to say for yourself?"
I jumped off the roof once into a patch of clover because I was certain that if I proved myself to God, he would let me find a four-leaf flower.
The Irish Mob
"Irish are Spaniards who got lost in the mist"
I went out with the Irish mob yesterday afternoon, at least what’s left of it. Hunter Thompson died in 2005, Jimmie Mitchell went out in '07— and of course he shot his brother Art quite a few years back— when we all thought it would be the other way around.
Bob Callahan died last March and I only learned of his passing by accident, while reading a biography from one of his favorite New York dames, Tex Guinan. She was the Prohibition raconteur who famously said, long before another Irish actor named W.C. Fields made it popular: Never give a sucker an even break.
Callahan memorialized Tex in his book, The Big Book of Irish American Culture, which I’ve been reading like a prayerbook since his untimely departure. I use it as a family history guide to understand the unmarked graves my own relatives have left behind.
Bob, a writer and propagandist like myself, had been broke and dying for years.
This is a familiar story.
I’ll tell you why Bob never had any money or good health: He was wonderfully impulsive. “Mr. Toad,” indeed!
One day, in our halcyon period, he called me to check on a story I was writing for Warren Hinkle's Argonaut.
I told him, “Yeah, I’ll finish the story but I wish you wouldn’t insist on paying me for these sort of things, because the check never comes and then I feel like a mark.”
“How can I make it up to you, my darling, what do I owe you?” he said. “Hot Fudge Sundae with nuts?”
“Yeah, my landlady would love one.”
“It never shoulda happened.” Bob despaired. He began casting evil spells on some bad egg who was supposed to have followed through. Right!
“$700, Bob, my rent.”
“Where are you at?” he said, rustling papers.”Still on Bessie Street? Look for a boy on a bike in twenty minutes.”
A messenger arrived at my basement door in a half-hour and tossed me a brown paper bag. It was stuffed with twenties, fives, and singles. I could smell the garter belts from the O’Farrell Theater.
I called Bob back. “This is the best job ever. What do you want me to write next?”
Years later, at the last of Callahan’s birthdays at Brennan’s pub in Berkeley— the last one I attended, anyway— I knew Bob's only need was cash, or prescription drugs. No hot fudge. He’d had every insult and ailment to the body; no one knew how he could stand up.
I filled a battered briefcase with “play money” from a toy and game store, mixed in with $50 in singles, my actual budget. I filled it ‘til I had to sit on the case to shut the latches.
The look on Callahan’s face— when the case sprung open on Brennan’s bar and the green bills exploded— was a sweet cartoon.
I’ve been part of a tight, familial, loyal— if not everpresent— group of Irish Catholic radicals since I first came to San Francisco.
While other people might’ve thought we were united because of porn or politics— and that certainly gassed our motor— the reason it was our little group, and not some other sect, was the recognition of our spots and stripes.
What possible trait could be shared among autodidactic working class Irish Catholics with a poetic streak red on their necks, 150 years after the great immigration? It’s more than I gleaned when our pocky faces first laid eyes on each other.
Of course you’ll find scrappers and underdogs, advocates and revolutionaries in every quarter, but what makes any of it particularly Irish? What does the Papist rebel do or say that the proud Russian or Mexican revolutionary does not?
It’s question answered more eloquently in the way my body moves around a room than it does in any exposition.
The Irish recipe is a particular stew of warrior, poet, priest, and professional arguer. The lawyer who dances, feints, jabs, and prays. Not only do we carry a grudge of a colonized country for 900 years, but we sing about our insolence and grief more beautifully than anyone else. We go to bed with visions of sugarplums and bloody swords dancing in our heads.
“The Murphyia,” my friend Spain Rodriguez calls them. I met Hunter through Jim and Artie (tied to Warren and Dan O'Neill and Ron Turner and all the rest). They were fair replicas of the uncles I was separated from because my mother cut them off— like a fairy ring felled in a forest.
You can see Mama’s point: they were dangerous, reckless, and unrepentant. A lot of people got hurt.
She was all these things as well, but completely intolerant of the same qualities in men— and Irishmen in particular.
When I attended Jim and Art’s funerals in small town Antioch, California— both of them— I cried not only for their loss, but for the loss of all the men in my family so early on. My mom would’ve hated them... not for being pornographers— not at all— but for being their wife, their daughter, their long-suffering mother. She had really had it with the long suffering.
My mom stopped speaking and corresponding to her blood relatives when I was seven, after several years of brinkmanship. It started out, from what I could see, as a solitary silent treatment against her father, whom she never introduced me to. Nor did I ever see her turn to him for a look or a word. Not once; his eldest daughter. That was Jack O’Halloran.
Then there was her brother, Patrick James, “Bud.” I never met him, the oldest of the five. My mom would only reluctantly offer his name, spilling out a few tearful words: “I worshiped Bud, when we were kids.”
My (not-Irish) father, the “leak” for every fact of my maternal history, told me that Uncle Bud had joined the Army, was a sergeant of a division in the CCC, and was a regular war hero… but that he came back an alcoholic. He let down his wife and eight children just as his father had done to him and the girls in the Depression.
My mom cried one time, as if marked for damnation, “I introduced him to Georgia!” That was Bud’s wife. I never met her, either.
I discovered her framed photographic portrait in one of my mother’s hat boxes, at nineteen years old. She looks so pretty in her Red Cross outfit and long curls. My family threw themselves into the war effort. But my mother could not face Georgia again, apparently for the sin of her matchmaking.
The shame of all the history— the errors, the regrets. Mama once admitted that when she and her siblings were teenagers, there were signs on public establishments in St. Paul that said, “No Dogs, No Indians, No Irish.”
There was something about being the final group mentioned on that sign that was the nail in the coffin.
Why were the Irish so despised? They were "dirty," they were drunk, they were hungry, and they were liars— the final two being somewhat related. And their religion was full of smoke and powders and infinite chambers of ghosts— mysteries for the sake of mysteries.
My mom didn’t drink. I rarely saw her with a beer. She was obsessive about cleaning up one side and down another. If I never scrub another floor again it will be one too many. She taught me how to make three meals on the table, and to set it.
One time when I was just little, she put two yardsticks like a giant “X” on the bare floor, and taught me an Irish jig. She laughed and threw her head, the sweat making her flat hair curly. Her feet never tripped or hesitated.
She could sing or recite epics that went on verse after verse, as if she was inventing them on the spot. Maybe she was.
But if we were around other Irish Catholics who did the same things, the corners of her mouth drew tight. She was thinking something vicious, and her parting words would pinch as hard as her hand on my shoulder, to steer me away from “that awful clan.”
She’d take me to church, refuse Communion for herself, and after all that trouble to get dressed up in our patent leather shoes, she’d leave at the end of the service, furious that they’d given up the Latin, and provoked at the priest’s sermon. “Those Bastards,” she’d say. "Hypocrite bastards."
When I was in my thirties, I got an invitation from a gay group in Belfast who invited me to speak at an arts festival. I was flattered and thought, “Here’s something I can tell Mama and she’ll be proud."
Oh no. She was ticked off. “Who’s paying for it, Susie?” she asked, as if she’d just caught their hand in her pocket.
“Don't trust a word they say,” she repeated, when I told her the hosts were still fundraising. “Don’t you forward them one penny, because you’ll never see it again.”
My mouth dropped. My mother, who wouldn’t tolerate a single cliché related to any racial stereotype— was a bigot when it came to our cousins across the way.
My mother was born in Fargo, ND, christened Elizabeth JoAnn and nicknamed Betty Jo. Then just Jo. She was the first of the first generation to break away.
Patrick James, Betty Jo, Molly, Frannie, and Pid— but Jo was the “smart” one. People who’ve wondered what my parents had to say about my path have no idea that my parents were the ones who broke the cardinal rules, not me.
My mom was the first in her family to go to college. The nuns told her she would burn in hell if she attended the public University of Minnesota in Dinkytown. She cackled, reliving the story every time, whispering, “I couldn’t wait!”
She was the first in the family to marry outside of the faith, to divorce, to bear only one child. More importantly, she didn’t die in childbirth-- the number one cause of death among the previous generation of Halloran women.
I’ve gone drinking in bars with the remnants of the Irish mob, looking for my mother’s wit, looking for Jack, looking for my aunties, for the rest of the family who came to San Francisco in the 1940s to work in the Hunter’s Point shipyards. When the Mission District still had its own dialect.
What my drinking friends tell me is more than I heard growing up, because despite my mother’s embodiment of Irish lass and lash, Jo wanted to be rid of her past, rid of every Irish curse.
When my Aunt Molly died, (the one sister who didn’t let my mother disappear altogether), she left me a few old family scrapbooks I didn't know existed. I was amazed to find a “baby book” that was kept for my mom and her brother.
Their mother Agnes had scrapbooked until the first two kids were toddlers. I was shocked at the "prosperity" the little book implied. How could they have kept a lovely illustrated diary like this when a few years later my mom was on the street scooping up rice from the Relief Wagons the government sent to their ghetto?
My grandmother Agnes died in my twelve-year-old mother’s arms while the little ones screamed in same one-room apartment, in hunger and filth. The family’s farm had been foreclosed, the husband was gone, no one knew where.
But in her teens, before marriage, my grandmother had lived another life. She was the Nickelodeon piano player for the first silent movie theater in Fargo. She collected dozens of beautiful hand-inscribed photographs from stars like Lillian Gish and William S. Hart.
When Agnes was first married, things were... okay. She had the time and good health to make a baby book. Her husband Jack’s handwriting was beautiful... and filled some of the pages with their first two children’s accomplishments. Jack was selling tractors for John Deere, and he would send beautiful postcards from the road...”Wish you were, kiss the babies.”
“Yes, he was famous for his hand,” my mom admitted when I showed her the evidence that her father was once something more than a skid row basket case.
She looked at the postcard I showed her as if it was a museum piece, not connected to her. How could this be the same guy who hid out and let the orphanage pick up the children when his wife died, the man whose hands shook in photographs, and looked like Ichabod Crane in his black duster?
The baby book was composed before the crash, in the mid-twenties, before the banks took Grandmother Halloran’s farm, before alcoholism claimed my grandfather’s allegiance. The baby books were full of promise. On the page where the doting parents recorded “Baby’s First Word,” instead of “Da” or Mama,” Elizabeth's first word was: “Bud.” Her big brother. Written in that beautiful cursive pen.
When my mom was dying a few years ago, she was on a lot of morphine, and she gaily told stories I’d been waiting to hear all my life. I wasn’t ready for it; I’d given up so long ago to ever hear anything from her lips.
When I was little, I made the mistake of asking, “What was it like when you were my age?” She’d sob as if I’d stuck her with a pin, her face accusing me— as if she was the baby and I was too cruel. I didn’t ask her again after I started to read.
When my mother was dying, cancer protruding all over her body in giant lumps and bumps, she wasn’t grieving. She could recite a chapter of her life without blinking, even laughing at it. She didn’t cry out at all, except when she was looking for her grandmother, in bouts of sleepwalking.
I finally realized after one of her nocturnal walks that my mom could barely remember her birth mother, because her only childhood memories were of a sick and dying woman who kept getting pregnant. “Mama” was a saint, not a person.
Instead, my mom looked to her real mother figure, her grandma.
“My grandma,” she told me, during one of her loquacious Fentanyl patch moments, “was the only person in my family who ever praised me or told me I was good. She told me I was smart and I could do anything.”
Forty-eight years it took me to hear that.
My mother was a star; when I meet people who still remember her, they shake their heads and remember an incandescent anecdote, where she burned hot, either in temper, passion, or blistering empathy. She felt things so deeply, and she could bury them just as long.
Since my mother’s death, I find myself yearning to hang out with Bob and his brethren. Now Bob’s gone, too. The comfort I find among my “Friends of Bob,” is not because they were writers or storytellers or newspapermen, but because they reminded me of my lost O’Hallorans. They look like them. Larger than life. Absurd by definition. Outraged by injustice when they don’t have one breath left to do anything else.
You ask why someone like my old comrade Hunter Thompson could cry out a lament and strip a hypocrite down to their crack while decanting in hallucinatory prose... well, that’s the Irish in him.
There’s something about a clan that holds onto memories for a long time, even if you never speak them out loud. The mob memories. There never was an Irish “famine” you know—the British seized the meat and they tried to stop the Irish from speaking their own language, upon pain of death. It’s a recipe for glory, self-destruction, flaming appearances, and a number of tunes you can’t get out of your head.
Mama told me a story one morning, when we were meditating on the plum blossums outside her window. “When Grandma still had the farm,” she said, “there was a fence at the edge of the property right on the highway, where the Greyhound bus passed every day on its way west.
“There was a song on the radio I liked then, it was Rudy Vallee, he was all the rage— “The Red River Valley.”
I've been thinking a long time, my darling
Of the sweet words you never would say
Now, alas, must my fond hopes all vanish
For they say you are going away
“I would sit on that fence post every afternoon!” She laughed like the memory of her legs swinging on the fence was a comic newsreel. “I was waiting for the bus to come by, bawling out “The Red River Valley” at the top of my lungs— because I knew that one day, the bus driver would hear me— and everyone on the bus would clap their hands and they’d stop the the bus and pick me up and take me out to Hollywood and I would be a big, big star!”
I can see the plough behind her, those legs kicking and our California destiny— way, way, out, in front of that bus.