“Stand tall. Remember you’re Irish.”
I can still hear my grandfather speaking those words. He was a proud man who loved God, his family and his heritage along with his adopted country of America. Here is his story, my tribute to him on St. Patrick’s Day when everyone is a little bit Irish!
At 16, taking only the clothing on his back and hunger for a companion, Michael said goodbye to his homeland and stole aboard the ship heading for America. He crept quietly down into the hold and hid among the cargo. The days and nights melted together and finally, the waves of seasickness threw him into a feverish sleep where the draped, bent, hollow-eyed figure of Poverty wielding its sharp-edged sword of famine stood guard on Ireland’s shore, preventing his return. Michael cried out in his sleep and was heard by the ship’s captain. The usually stern captain took pity on the lanky half-starved boy and allowed him to work for his passage. Michael worked from dawn to dusk and spent his evenings befriended by the captain who marveled at the youth’s quick wit and extensive knowledge of history and the poets.
Michael came out west to San Francisco, as many Irish had done before him, lured by the open, friendly atmosphere and hope of employment. The sound and smell of the ocean mingling with the cool blanket of fog always reminded him of his beloved Ireland. By the time he was 30, Michael had married his tiny bride, settled in as a fireman on the fireboats and lost all his hair. He gained eight children who subsequently produced 23 grandchildren who also called him “Pop.”
My grandparents’ large and friendly house was often filled with a mixture of relatives and friends when I was small. On any given night, the dining room table held a good hearty meal and there sat my grandfather, the head of it all. Quite often after dinner, “Jim Beam” paid a visit and if the company and mood warranted it, Pop got out the violin and filled the room with its sweet haunting music. When the uncles were there, they joined their thick deep brogue with his to produce a rich medley of sound, singing of Ireland’s pain and beauty. Tears flowed as fast as “Jim” was poured and I often fell asleep wrapped in the warmth of it all.
Oh, and the stories! Pop was always ready with a story. As he puffed on his pipe, he told of the leprechauns dancing across the fields in Ireland and how he came home one night and right away knew someone was dying because the Bean Si (pronounced ‘banshee’) was sitting on the gate combing her long dark hair. As he walked by, she began her high-pitched wailing cry. Then, stretching her arms outward, she flew up and through the nearby grove of trees, her hair streaming behind, a willowy wisp, blending with the wind swept branches. How his eyes twinkled as he spun his yarn! He painted pictures with words so vividly that I still almost believe in ghosts and goblins.
Pop loved the Christmas holidays when he transformed the front room window area into a miniature village. He spread a white sheet over pillow lumps and bumps to form hills and valleys under the Christmas tree. Then, carefully unwrapping little wooden houses he had made in earlier days, he placed them here and there around a mirror laid flat to represent a pond. His large yet graceful hands arranged little bushes and trees and hung tiny lights throughout. He dusted the entire scene with artificial snow and with a flip of the light switch, brought the tiny village to life.
In later years, Halloween became a favorite holiday also. Pop sat with a big bowl of candy in a chair near the front door so he could enjoy seeing the “wee ones” with their little painted faces. Pop loved to cover his face in mock fear of the scarier costumes as the children and parents laughed with him.
Pop was always a gentleman. After grandma died and he retired, he enjoyed walking to church on Sunday properly attired in a suit and tie. With shoes polished to a brilliant shine, he walked proudly down the street, tipping his hat to the neighborhood ladies. Even in the midst of devastating family tragedies, Pop always stood tall.
The invisible cloak of pain that rested on his shoulders in later life began weighing heavily, and finally, Pop’s heart was failing. I rushed his first great grandchild, only four weeks old, past the startled nurses at the hospital and into his arms. His hands, thinner now, the deep nail beds a faint bluish color held the tiny baby girl close as he announced to the other men, “Look at this now! I turn around and they tell me I’m a father. Then I turn around again and they tell me I’m a grandfather. Now they’re telling me I’m a great grandfather. Oh child, you’re making me old before me time!”
Pop came home, but only for a while. A short time later, I went to visit him and we talked again about the trip we would someday take to Ireland. Pop’s face was almost translucent and I could hear the wailing of the Bean Si. His big heart, no longer as strong, quietly stopped the next evening as he lay down to rest forever.
You’ll always live in my heart, Pop, and as you walk the meadows of County Claire, “Go gcoinne Dia thu,” (May God keep you.)