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Easter Rising: An Irish American Coming Up from Under
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Easter Rising: An Irish American Coming Up from Under

by Michael Patrick MacDonald

A powerfully redemptive story of escape from the Irish American ghetto.

Michael Patrick MacDonald's All Souls: A Family Story from Southie told the story of the loss of four of his siblings to the violence, poverty, and gangsterism of Boston's Irish American ghetto. The question "How did you get out?" has haunted MacDonald ever since. In response he has


A powerfully redemptive story of escape from the Irish American ghetto.

Michael Patrick MacDonald's All Souls: A Family Story from Southie told the story of the loss of four of his siblings to the violence, poverty, and gangsterism of Boston's Irish American ghetto. The question "How did you get out?" has haunted MacDonald ever since. In response he has written this new book, a searingly honest story of reinvention that begins with young MacDonald's breakaway from the soul-crushing walls of Southie's Old Colony housing project and ends with two healing journeys to Ireland that are unlike anything in Irish American literature.

The story begins with MacDonald's first urgent forays outside Southie, into Boston and eventually to New York's East Village, where he becomes part of the club scene swirling around Johnny Rotten, Mission of Burma, the Clash, and other groups. MacDonald's one-of-a-kind 1980s social history gives us a powerful glimpse of what punk music is for him: a lifesaving form of subversion and self-education. But family tragedies draw him home again, where trauma and guilt lead to an emotional collapse. In a harrowing yet hilarious scene of self-discovery, MacDonald meets his father for the first time—much too late. After this spectacularly failed attempt to connect, MacDonald travels to Ireland, first as an alienated young man who has learned to hate shamrocks with a passion, and then on a second trip with his extraordinary "Ma," a roots journey laced with both rebellion and profound redemption.

Editorial Reviews

Juliet Wittman
MacDonald is a fine writer, with a terrific ear for dialogue and a gift for creating compelling scenes…This is an instructive, lively tale, told in a voice that's well worth hearing.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
In All Souls, MacDonald told the heartbreaking story of the tragic deaths of four of his siblings and his family's suffering amidst a culture of silence in Southie, Boston's tough Irish ghetto. He also introduced the enduring character of his accordian-playing, fist-fighting "Ma," who raised her massive family on her own. MacDonald's second memoir continues the saga with the author turning his gaze upon himself in hope of explaining how he escaped where his brethren succumbed. It quickly becomes apparent that his survival has much to do with his perpetual status as the exile. He's the "quiet one" in his big Irish-Catholic family, the poor kid at Boston Latin High School. When his friends branch into drugs and alcohol, MacDonald remains sober, seeking refuge and a renewed sense of self in Boston's burgeoning early '80s punk rock scene, where he encounters such seminal figures as the Clash and Johnny Rotten. As the odd man out looking for a place to fit in, MacDonald journeys further and further away from Southie-first to downtown Boston, then to New York's Lower East Side-and the dangerous neighborhood rites that spelled doom for his family members. The book takes on a different tone as MacDonald heads to Europe after going to the Southie funeral of his father, a man he never knew. On different occasions-once with Ma-he finds his way to Ireland, his ancestral homeland, "to understand more about Southie, and Irish America in general." Even though MacDonald is far from the first Irish-American to discover the auld sod, he continues to courageously break Southie's silence in this tale of a journey that is as inspiring as it is haunting. (Sept.) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
In a sequel to the lacerating All Souls: A Family Story from Southie, MacDonald relates his escape from Boston's Irish American ghetto, where his four siblings eventually perished, to funky 1970s East Village Life, more crises, and a final redemption. With a seven-city tour. Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Simple yet affecting follow-up to MacDonald's raw debut memoir, All Souls (1999). The previous book detailed in broad brushstrokes a difficult life growing up in the Old Colony housing project of prideful, Irish-Catholic South Boston. The author, now nearing 40, digs deeper this time, providing a more introspective, personal tour (spliced with pages of song lyrics) of his loss of innocence as one of nine children living in a drug-and organized-crime-ridden environment, barely supervised by his wise, accordion-playing Ma. His neighborhood provided a generally pleasant though restrictive enclave of family and friends, but MacDonald craved "venturing alone beyond Southie's borders." The early-'80s punk-rock scene afforded him all that and more. Though initially pensive, teenager MacDonald, inspired by Patti Smith, was soon shoplifting his first Sex Pistols album, attending school with spiky pink hair and a dog collar and covering his bedroom windows with black cloth. This behavior led to late nights sneaking into bars with new friends, finding himself onstage at a Siouxsie and the Banshees concert, then skipping school altogether. New York City and dance clubs like Danceteria and the Mudd Club provided a much-needed respite from the increasingly treacherous streets of Southie, but nothing could prepare MacDonald for the systematic deterioration of his siblings: Schizophrenic Davey killed himself, Kathy almost succumbed to a drug overdose, Frankie and Kevin met violent ends. Eventually, situational stresses began to weigh heavily on MacDonald's psyche, and he turned to alcohol and drugs "to erase, to forget about everything"-except the funeral for the father he barely knew. After therapy, hemoved onward to several carefree, if penniless, weeks in Europe, but an enlightening visit to Ireland with his mother was what really turned him around. Though the author, now a social activist, emerged physically unscathed from his upbringing, the emotional scars he bears are undeniable. Blistering scrapbook pages from a melancholy childhood.

Product Details

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.80(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.00(d)

Read an Excerpt

I learned to jump subway fares by tagging along with my brother Kevin and his friends on shoplifting ventures outside the project. Downtown Boston was only three stops but worlds away from Old Colony Project. I was ten, and Southie’s busing riots of the past two years had now dissipated into the occasional scuffle with the police. Still, everyone in our neighborhood always said how dangerous it was to leave. It was still the world against Southie and Southie against the world. So for me there was a terrifying thrill in leaving the neighborhood at all. The more I snuck on those trains, the more it felt like traveling to another country, like I was a tourist about to see strange lands and stranger people for the very first time.
At first our technique was basic. We’d wait at the top of the stairs of Andrew Station until we heard a train arriving, then dart down the stairs, hop over the turnstiles, and bolt for the train’s doors. By the time we were lined up at the four turnstiles, the train would be just making its final wshhhh sound, which Kevin said was the air releasing from the brake cylinder. We’d each lift off, hands on either side of the turnstile, and drive our legs over the bars feet first, landing as far out as we could. By the time we landed, the fare taker would be screaming and knocking on his scratched and blurry Plexiglas windows, mouthing what I imagined was “You little fucks!” Right about then I knew we would hear the train doors open with a collective rumble. If we did it according to Kevin’s exact timing—if we started running downstairs at just the right moment, when the train was first coming to a halt with a long screech of the brakes—we’d usually make it inside just before we felt the suction of the doors closing behind us. No one ever chased after us in the early days, so we probably didn’t have to turn it into the heart-racing caper it always felt like. But it was great each time to feel the breeze of those clackety doors nearly catching my shirt. I’d take a deep breath in relief, and then in expectation.
If the train we hopped came from the suburbs, it would be one of the brand-new modern ones, carrying all whites. But if it had come from Dorchester it would be one of the old, rundown ones and filled with blacks. I would go off by myself to grab a seat and silently take in all the newness, black or white. But my brother Kevin seemed interested only in “getting the fuck in, and getting the fuck out”—back to Southie. To him we were on a mission, and he was all business. He’d make me stand up so that we were all sticking together. He’d keep us huddled around him while he told us what to do and what not to do around all these dangerous blacks and goofy- looking white people from the world that was not Southie. And he’d whack me in the head every time I snuck a glance at the people he was talking about. But after a few minutes our huddle would fall apart. As we tried to keep our feet firmly planted on the bumpy ride, I always seemed to have the worst balance, flailing backward and sideways with the train’s chaotic twists and turns. I didn’t mind, though, as long as I never hit the floor.

Riding the trains was my favorite thing to do even before the trips with Kevin. Ma always told us we should want to go places, like Dorchester or Jamaica Plain. “For Chrissake, don’t you wanna see the world?” she said. On my eighth birthday she took me all the way to Park Street Station and put me on the Green Line to Jamaica Plain, where Nana would be waiting at the other end to take me out for a birthday dinner. The old trolley looked like it was the first one ever built, with bars over square windows that opened. Best of all, it had a driver’s booth at both ends—I guessed that was so it didn’t have to turn around at the end of the line. That seemed like the greatest day in the world, being trusted to get on a Green Line trolley all by myself. I kept thinking that to drown out how nervous I was getting. I sat in the backward- facing driver’s seat and waved to Ma on the platform while I pretended to myself that I was the conductor. Ma disappeared from view, and I distracted myself by trying to think up an excuse for why I was driving backward. But before I could, all the excitement and the backward driving made me puke out the window into the blackness of the tunnel. I went to sit in a normal remaining seat, to pretend like nothing had happened. On the forty-five- minute-long journey, I let my fears get the best of me, though, and imagined that I would end up on this one-way trip forever and never see my family again. Worst of all, I was soon the only passenger remaining. When the train came to a final screeching halt, the driver shut off the engine and the lights and barked, “Last stop! Arborway!” while packing up his things like he was going home. My heart was in my mouuuuuth until I saw Nana waving and running across the ghost town of a train yard. The sight of Nana was unmistakable, always in a loose navy blue polka-dot dress, shoes you saw at drugstores, and a flowered kerchief tied snugly under her chin. “For Chrissake, you look like Mother Hubbard,” Ma would snap at her when Nana complained about Ma’s miniskirts and spike heels. For me though, Nana’s old-fashionedness was calming. And this day the sight of her was more comforting than ever. I hopped off the trolley stairs in one leap. Nana greeted me as she always did, not saying hello but spitting on a napkin that seemed like it had been in her purse forever and rubbing it into my cheeks until they hurt. Nana talked about rosy cheeks like they were the most important thing in the world for people to see. “We’ll go for a wee supper now,” she said in that Donegal way that made everything sound like both an exclamation and a question. Well over my fears, I greeted her by saying that riding the subways was just about the greatest thing in the world and that I couldn’t wait to do it again.

Going home from fare-jumping trips with Kevin and his crew was easier than the trip out. We’d walk from Filene’s to South Station and press the red stop button hidden near the ground at the top of a wooden escalator so ancient- looking that Kevin convinced me it was from “colonial days.” After we pressed the button, the escalator would stutter in its climbing motion and then come to a rolling stop. That’s when we’d run down the steep and treacherous steps into the station exit. Each wooden step was about one foot square, and I always wondered if people were skinnier in colonial times. At the bottom of the escalator was an unmanned gate that was often left wide open. But even if it was chained and padlocked, you could push out one fence post to make a gap, just enough to slip through. It usually took a bit of teamwork, but it was a cinch. Kevin was the scrawniest and could slip through without anyone’s help, so he’d go first and pull on the gate from the other side.
One day I discovered an even better way to get back home to Southie. Kevin was inside Papa Gino’s, pulling a scam he’d recently perfected. When the cashier called out a number, Kevin would wave a receipt from the trash, all excited-like, as if he’d won the lottery. His performance was so convincing—or maybe just distracting—that he’d walk away with a tray full of pizza and Cokes. Okie and Stubs would distract the waiting customers even further by asking if anyone knew where the bathroom was. I was outside on Tremont Street, playing lookout—for what I didn’t know—and daydreaming that Kevin would get a whole pizza pie. But Kevin cared more about scamming stuff for everyone else than for himself, and I knew he would give away his only slice if that’s all he got. While I was supposedly keeping watch, I spied groups of black people gathering nearby and then disappearing through an automatic door to a steel shaft sticking up from the sidewalk. As soon as one cluster of mothers, teenagers, and babies in strollers disappeared through the mystery door, more groups would gather around, press a button, and then loiter at a slight distance. They tried hard to look inconspicuous by rubbing their hands together or jumping up and down in one place as if they were cold, but I knew by their watchful eyes that they were just looking out, like I was supposed to be doing. The door opened, and again the busy sidewalk turned empty. I walked closer and saw through little steamy windows that everyone was squeezed like sardines onto an elevator and then whisked away to some place below Tremont Street. I pressed the button and waited for the elevator to come back up again so I could investigate.
“What are you, a fuckin’ losah?” Kevin screamed down Tremont Street just as the doors opened and more people looked around before hopping on. He was running toward me with a single slice of pizza, yelling at me for always wandering off. “You were supposed to keep watch!” he barked, grabbing me by the collar. Okie and Stubs were running behind him, pizzaless. They seemed like they thought they were being chased, and I told them to follow me. We squeezed into the elevator and pushed our way to the middle, surrounded by whole families of black people. Kevin punched me for staring up at them, even though there was nowhere else to look but up. In the end I would get high marks for finding a whole new and simpler method for getting a free ride home. The service elevator led from the street right into the subway system, beyond the conductor booths, and we all filed out nonchalantly. That day I earned the only slice of pizza Kevin was able to score.
In the days that followed I was so proud of my find I put the word out all over Old Colony Project about the new way to get home from downtown. That pissed Kevin off—he said the more people knew, the sooner the MBTA would cop on and shut us out. For a time the elevator was the one place in Boston you’d see my neighbors from Southie squeezed into a small space with black people. A key was required for the elevator to work, but the keyhole was always turned sideways, in the on position, either because it was broken or because some transit worker was doing us all a favor.
Kevin and his friends didn’t care about leaving Southie except on scamming missions—they never went just to wander. And I could never get my own friends to leave the project, so it wasn’t long before I was venturing alone to see the strange lands and strange people beyond Southie’s borders.

Copyright © 2006 by Michael Patrick MacDonald. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.

Meet the Author

Michael Patrick MacDonald helped launch Boston’s successful gun-buyback program and is founder of the South Boston Vigil Group. He has won the American Book Award, a New England Literary Lights Award, and the Myers Center Outstanding Book Award administered by the Myers Center for the Study of Bigotry and Human Rights in North America. His second book, the highly acclaimed memoir Easter Rising, was published in 2006, and will be available in paperback from Houghton Mifflin in March, 2008. He is currently writing the screenplay of All Souls for director Ron Shelton. MacDonald lives in Brooklyn.

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