Midlife Irish: Discovering My Family and Myselfby Frank Gannon
If Bill Bryson set off for Ireland to discover his roots, then you'd have MIDLIFE IRISH--an illuminating, entertaining, and heartwarming look at one man's search for where--and who--he came from. Irish-American. What does this vague term really mean? Millions of people describe themselves as Irish-American, but beyond celebrating St. Patrick's Day with a drunken zeal, how many of them know really anything about their cultural ancestry? It is this curiosity that got the better of Frank Gannon--the son of a couple of straight-off-the-boat Irish immigrants. His mother and father, who never spoke about life on the Emerald Isle, raised him in New Jersey, thousands of miles from Ireland. But after both his parents passed away, he realized he knew nothing about whom they really were and where they came from--and in effect, where he came from. Now at the half-way point in his life, Gannon decided to fill in the blanks. He embarked on a journey to Planet Green and slowly pieced together the lives of his parents. Before long, he discovered much about his mother and father, and just as much about himself. At times funny, poignant, and heartbreaking, MIDLIFE IRISH draws on the universal themes of love, loss, and laughter that have kept the Irish both miserable and happy--often at the same time--throughout the years. This story of one man's search for his cultural identity will have phones ringing off the hook at the Irish Board of Tourism, as readers will want to take off
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Read an Excerpt
By Frank Gannon
Warner BooksCopyright © 2003 Frank Gannon
All right reserved.
I'm a middle-age guy, if I'm going to live another forty-nine years. I know this isn't going to happen. There's nothing "middle" about this. If I get the same deal as my dad, I am left with sixteen years. I'm a three-quarters-age guy, which is a more accurate word than "middle."
I live in Demorest, a little town in the mountains of northern Georgia. There are about seven hundred other people who also live here. I think I know most of them. I would say that Demorest is like Mayberry on that Andy Griffith show, but Mayberry appears to be a much more complex place. The most famous person ever born in Demorest is Johnny Mize, the Hall of Fame baseball player. He was born here, played for the Giants, the Cardinals, and the Yankees. Then he came back to Demorest and died. When I first moved here, there was a sign, "Demorest, home of Johnny Mize." They took the sign down when he died.
I am a married man with three kids. My full name is Francis Xavier Gannon. Like almost everybody named "Francis Xavier," I'm Irish.
I've never thought much about that. My mom was born in Anne Forde in Ballyhaunis, a little town in the West of Ireland, County Mayo. My dad, Bernard Gannon, grew up on a farm near the city of Athlone near the center of Ireland. They came over to America long before I was born. They didn't know each other in Ireland, but by the time I was born, they had known each other almost twenty years.
My parents were pretty old when they started a family. World War II started right after they got engaged, so they had a long engagement. Knowing my dad, I think they probably would have had a long engagement without the war. My mom was born in 1908, my dad four months later. They came to America for many reasons. The main reason was money. They became American citizens. They never seriously considered going back to Ireland. My father did go back to the Old Country, for two weeks in 1968, when he knew he had cancer. My mom may have visited Ireland again when she was young, but during my life, she only went back that one time with my dad.
By the time I came around, Dad owned his own little business, a workingman's bar. So if they had wanted, they could easily have afforded to go back. My dad never mentioned going back, and my mom never mentioned it when he was around. After she knew about the cancer she mentioned going back a lot.
My parents weren't that interested in Ireland, at least as far as I could tell. They never discussed "the troubles" or anything else that was happening on the island. I never heard them mention anyone they knew who had stayed in Ireland. The people back there were history for them, history they didn't want to hear about.
The category "Irish people in America," however, was a subject of extreme interest in the Gannon house. When they saw anyone on television who had "gotten off the boat," they had to discuss just how Irish the guy still was. Someone like Bing Crosby was vaguely Irish. He talked American. You would have to know about his "people" to nail him as Irish. Someone like the singers Carmel Quinn and Dennis Day, people just off the boat, still sounded Irish. Crosby was better because he was more American.
There was some debate just how Irish the off-the-boat talkers were. Although they spoke with a brogue, my father suspected them of "putting it on." He had a very good ear for someone pretending to be more Irish than thou. Sometimes when Dennis Day or Carmel Quinn talked, my dad would close his eyes and shake his giant head. To pretend that you talked with a brogue when you really were Americanized was a truly appalling practice. Sometimes my dad would have to leave the room after they said something "Irish" that smelled of phoniness. My mom was more tolerant than my dad, but she also hated "pseudo-Irish." She just wasn't as demonstrative as Dad.
My parents had a thick brogue. My sister Mary, my brother Bud, and I sound more like a standard television announcer than someone who's "Irish." My dad liked this. My mom had no comment, but she didn't seem to think it was bad that her children sounded American. Once I pretended I had an English accent, and they really didn't like it, so I stopped.
It is, of course, impossible to totally break one's "language ties." I remember a dialect specialist in college who told me exactly where I was born, where I grew up, and where my parents came from. It was as if I had a sign on my forehead to the dialect specialist, but to the general public I was "disguised." My dad actually tried to get rid of his brogue, but saw it was hopeless and abandoned the project. My mom never tried. Her speaking voice was as west Irish as the rocks on the coast of Mayo. I can close my eyes and listen to her funny/sad Irish voice any time I want to.
I do have one ability I seem to have inherited. I can tell if an actor is accurate in his Irish accent. If the actor is a little off on his feigned Irishness, I can tell. Brad Pitt had the most egregiously wrong "Irish accent" in the quickly forgotten The Devil's Own ("I'm not goin' bahk!") as an IRA guy in America with a hidden past. I react to his voice in that film like I react to the sound of a balloon being rubbed with wet hands.
A few actors do an Irish accent, to my ear, very accurately. I guess Liam Neeson doesn't count, but Julia Roberts, to me, can sound as if she just got off the boat. Johnny Depp (Chocolate) and Robin Wright (The Playboys) also receive high grades for Irish verisimilitude. Tom Cruise (Far and Away): accent B minus, performance D.
My dad had a dilemma that he had to deal with every day. He didn't want to be identified as Irish, yet every time he spoke, he gave himself away. Therefore, he didn't talk unless he couldn't get out of it. Talk only as a last resort. My dad was a pretty mysterious guy. When I was little, I thought maybe he was Batman. He tended to conceal certain details, when the details weren't to his liking. One lifelong, very weird thing my dad did was lie about his birthday. He didn't lie about the year, which would have been understandable. He lied about the date he was born.
Dad's birthday, he always told us, was August 25. I discovered that he was lying, after he died. He was really born on December 21. My nephew's birthday is on that date, so you would think it would slip. But no, he was born in August, and that was it. He kept up this minor lie his whole life. When he died, and I saw "December 21, 1908" on his birth certificate, I was startled. Why, I thought, would he lie about such a ridiculous thing? He wanted to be another astrological sign? After my dad's funeral, I asked my dad's brother, John Gannon, who was as gregarious as my dad was quiet, why my dad misrepresented his birthday.
"He didn't want to be younger than his wife," he said quickly, as if that explained things. For the Gannon brothers. My dad spoke about his life back in Ireland as little as possible. The only subject he spoke less about was sex-or perhaps "sex" and "life back in Ireland" were tied for last. My mom, who talked all the time about almost everything, rarely mentioned her childhood. My mom was the easiest person in the world to talk to. She would chat about everything. Things that you didn't think had great detail, she would discuss in great detail, but about life back in the Old Country, she was almost as silent as my dad.
If I did ask them about Ireland, which I did often when I was in college, my mom would steer the subject away from Ireland, while my dad would do his imitation of a rock. Because my mom kept talking, I felt I had a chance of getting something about the Old Sod, but no dice. If you talked to her for twenty minutes, you would have taken a huge conversational walk. You might talk about baseball and God and whatever, but I very rarely got her to talk about her childhood. The Indian who answers, "How" to every question was a blabbermouth compared to my dad. Once, riding in the car, I tried the direct approach. "What was it like when you were in school?" "Different," he said, and that was it.
Growing up, I knew that I was Irish in much the same way I knew that I had asthma. I knew I had it but I didn't know anything about it. Unlike asthma, however, I would never grow out of being Irish. What little I did know about my parents' early life I had to piece together from tiny overheard pieces of conversations and a few inferences. I was a kid, and I wasn't a great inferer, but I did gather a few facts:
Although my parents are almost exactly the same age and Ireland is a very small country, they did not know each other until they were in America.
My dad arrived in America first, but my mom became a citizen before he did. They were both in their twenties when they became official Americans. (They were, of course, also official citizens of Ireland until the day they died.)
Mom and Dad knew that they were leaving Ireland permanently. In this they were like most Irish people. For Irish immigrants coming to America, Ireland is the country of the past. Irish people are the least likely immigrants to return to their native country. Depression-era Philadelphia, for my parents, was still better than what they left behind. Frank McCourt's mom and dad, who returned to Ireland, are an exceptional case. (With Ireland's bright economy, this is probably going to change soon.)
My parents had a very long courtship. They met; they dated; they got engaged. My dad, who was desperate for a job, decided to enlist in the army. He hated it. When his hitch was almost up, World War II started. He wound up spending ten years in the army. He got out, they got married. They were both almost forty.
Mom and Dad didn't say what their time in Ireland was like, but they did train me to suspect anything that was pseudo-Irish. I am happy they never lived to see Leprechaun in the Hood.
My parents' one and only trip to Ireland was something that my dad strongly resisted. He needed a lot of coaxing. I remember long conversations featuring my mom on the "Pro-Ireland" side and my dad on the "Con-Irish." These started without warning. Sometimes something came on television that suggested Ireland, and crossfire would begin. Sometimes it was something overtly Irish. More often it was something subtle. In the right mood, merely the sight of the color green was enough to set it off. Look at that on television.
Yeah. Those hills look like round stone. They don't. Yes they do. Exactly. It's just television. It's nothing. Let's go. I can't. Why? I can't leave the place. Frank and Jack can handle it. Look at him. He's all grown up. I can't do it. And that's it. Come on.
My dad would turn to me with a desperate look. Then he'd take off his glasses and rub his eyes. Then he would say, "She won't stop."
There were many hours of this but they finally went. The hardest thing for my dad was leaving the bar, which he never called anything except "The Place." He worried about his bar all the time. He was sure that no one could run it the right way.
But he finally agreed, and they went back to Ireland for a couple of weeks. After he said he would go if she would just stop talking about it, my mom whispered something in my ear. "He just needed coaxing." Five thousand hours of coax-ing. I also needed coaxing.
A lot of Americans saw the miserable, poverty-stricken youth of Frank McCourt as representative of the typical first-generation Irish experience. I got public sympathy that I hadn't earned in social situations. I was introduced to a woman in her twenties at a party of some sort. I said hello. Then my friend, by way of introduction, said, "His parents were born in Ireland." My friend could have said many other things. She might have said, "He needs the plot explained to him after he sees Agatha Christie movies." She might have said, "The poor bastard voted for Ralph Nader." But she picked the Irish thing. The person I was introduced to suddenly looked sympathetic.
"I'm so sorry," she said. I will take whatever sympathy is offered, but there is nothing in my childhood that would normally evoke pity. In this I'm like most first-generation Irish-Americans. The over-whelming majority had experiences like mine. Their parents were generally very poor, but America was a new start. In America they worked hard, stayed married, and tried hard to raise their kids. There were no drunken beatings and no starvation.
Christmas was always nice. The only drunk people I saw weren't related to me. The Gannon kids grew up to be more American than Irish. They had a little neurosis here and there, but nothing a little Prozac wouldn't fix. So it wasn't really that surprising that my parents left the past in the past. However, no one ever successfully cuts himself off from his own past, and, as J. M. Barrie said, "Nothing much matters after you're six years old."
I came in near the end of my parents' lives. I completely missed the beginning, so I'm going back to the theater. Of my two parents, my dad was by far the more mysterious. Except for her Irish past, I was very close to my mom, but I really didn't even know much about my dad's post-Ireland life. My dad was over forty when I was born, so by the time I started to get curious about his past, he was already around sixty. We didn't talk very much. When he died, at sixty-five, I was still waiting to have a good talk. I would spend about two hours alone with my dad every week, so it seems remarkable that we had very little communication. However, my dad talked in a very distinctive, non-revelatory way. I can say, after "talking" with him for several hundred hours, I still didn't know any more about him. He wanted it that way. Let me explain.
Every Sunday we would ride to the bar to clean up. My dad liked to thoroughly clean the place on Sunday, the only day of the week he closed. It was against the law in New Jersey to sell take-out liquor, beer, or wine then, so it probably wouldn't have been a big profit day, but my dad said that Sunday was a special day, set aside for church and family, and closing was the right thing to do. My dad closed the bar on Sundays, Good Friday, New Year's Day, and Christmas. The Good Friday closing used to seriously puzzle winos. They would knock on the door, peer through the glass, and scratch their heads in wonderment. It can't be Sunday already, thought the winos. Why is this bar closed today?
I know this because my dad and I drove past the bar on Good Fridays, and I could see the winos lost in wonderment outside. There was another, open bar three blocks away, but this was their bar, and they were genuinely perplexed. "They're heathens," my dad said.
There was no work on Good Friday, but every Sunday morning it was clean-up time. We'd get up around 6:00 A.M.,
Excerpted from Midlife Irish by Frank Gannon Copyright © 2003 by Frank Gannon. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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if you even claim to be 5% irish, this one is fantastic. it's brilliantly funny, and very smart. it's also very touching and honest. really enjoyed this one!
This book isn't any 'about' book. If you want facts about Ireland, look elsewhere. But this book is tremendously entertaining and funny, one of the best I've read this year. It's also very touching in places. All in all, a really terrifice book that anyone would enjoy.
Midlife Irish is the best book I've read this year. I found it really surprising. It was a very informative book also--something like 'A Walk in the Woods', Bill Bryson's book. All in all ,one of the best reads in recent memory
This book is really unusually good. It's a search for 'rrots' , but it's also much more. It is the most honest look yet at the Irish American experience and what that means in 2003. I loved every second of it. It's very funny yet touching.