Monday, March 17, 2008

Luck of the Irish...

Any time I hear those word--mostly sentimental nonsense from bogus Irish--I think about the luck of my grandmother. Let me tell the you the story of Annie Stanton, born 1876, at Inishgowla, wading-distance from Westport, County Mayo. Inish is Irish for island. One either sloshed in to shore in one's Wellies at low tide, or rowed in when it was high.

By the time of her birth, thirty years after the famine, it was clear that Irish society had collapsed. As had the population of Ireland. Between 1845 when the potatoes began to rot in the ground, and 1995 the Irish population declined from 8 million to 3.9 million. As much as it was hunger, it seemed more like the pervasive desperation that drove those numbers down, drove the Irish mostly to America and England and Australia.

There was little to keep a young person--no work, no vitality--little but neglect, garnished with swagger stick contempt, from the the Brits.

So Annie Stanton said goodbye in 1892, at 16, a schoolgirl who would never again see a classroom, never again see her parents, nor most of her siblings. Steerage from Liverpool, then Ellis Island. She traveled to Cleveland, Ohio. There, she worked for the swells in Bratenahl, a domestic, in service at the sumptuous residence of some captain of industry (Mark Hanna and William Gwinn Mather, and their ilk--iron ore, shipping and steel barons--were all in Bratenahl). The swells.

In 1904, likely at St. Malachi's, she met Peter Noonan, several years younger than herself, a structural iron worker who had also emigrated alone in his teens. Must have been a surprise to learn that she and Peter had been born and grew up six miles apart, she in Westport, he in Newport, but had to "cross the ocean wild and wide" to meet, to marry and to raise a family.

In a tiny rented house on Eve Avenue in the working class neighborhood of the near west side, in St. Colman Parish, (an offshoot of St Patrick Parish, which had been an outgrowth of St Malachi Parish. Did I mention it was an Irish neighborhood?).

Two beautiful boys, Francis and Thomas, born in '06 and '08, have lain for a century, side-by-side in Calvary cemetery. They died twelve days apart, in early April, 1910, both of pneumonia contracted when a fire swept through the the house, drove the whole family into the rain in the middle of the night.

Brought low with grief and loss, they endured and were blessed with four more children in the next, seven years. But, the "luck" of the Irish touched them once again. Days before my mother's seventh birthday her father, Peter Noonan, after a struggle of four days, died at age 38. It was the height of the influenza pandemic of 1919, but it was pneumonia, not the flu.

The next ten years were difficult for a frightened and reclusive widow and her four children under the age of ten. Annie, taking in washing and ironing, the older kids delivering 100 newspapers before school, and twice a month, filled with shame, pulling a wagon to the office that distributed outside relief.

Then, 1929; things got even more difficult. Annie Stanton Noonan, endured the Great Depression pretty much as everyone else of that generation did--stoically, with the support of family and the parish. Half way through that decade, a widow's pension, the initiation in 1935 of Social Security lightened the burden. But the times still demanded a superhuman level of endurance.

She died in the Spring of 1940. She had outlived her husband, two of her children and three of her own siblings who also had emigrated to Cleveland. But her relative longevity certainly included so little of that fabled Irish luck.

Forty-eight years in America. Never saw her parents again. Never, but in her dreams, saw Inishgowla. Only briefly held and sang to her first grandchild Never knew that her children's children would number 24, and their children almost 70.

The luck of the Irish, the sweet elusive luck of the Irish.

A bit like the luck of the Mexicans, the Hmong, the Dominicans, Tibetans, Hondurans, Bangladeshi, Nicaraguans, Libyans, Jamaicans. In this our nation of immigrants, I hear all manner of shrieking contempt for the new immigrants, driven by poverty to seek a life in America--a life always accompanied by enormous sacrifice--particularly by that first generation.

I'm a lucky Irishman, thanks entirely to the courage and endurance of my immigrant grandparents from the rocky and isolated coast of County Mayo in the West of Ireland. Not to diminish similarly hardy and hardworking forbears on the paternal side of the genealogy--Dutch and East Prussian ancestors who had fled the bloody insanity of post-Napoleanic war and glory--arriving earlier than the Stantons and Noonans.

But the tears, the loss, the alienation and the longing they endured and overcame doesn't look anything like that hokey leprechaun-with-a-pot-of-gold luck so prevalent on the tacky St Patrick's decorations in all the bars and stores and restaurants today.

It wasn't luck that saw them through; it was courage, endurance and sacrifice...and, of course, the music.

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Of the biblical allotment of three score and ten I have lived only three of them more than a bicycle ride from one of the Great Lakes. I grew up ten blocks from Lake Erie in the (once Irish/Italian ghetto, now newly-hip) "Near West Side" of Cleveland. I can still cycle to the Milwaukee lakefront in an hour and a half; but, a round-trip has always been more than I would (noror ever did) attempt. -0- I'm a "...somewhat combative pacifist and fairly cooperative anarchist," after the example of Grace Paley (1922-2007). -0- I'm always cheerful when I pay my taxes (having refused--when necessary--to pay that portion of them dedicated to war). -0- And I always, always vote.