Over 60 years ago, great grandchildren of the famine Irish were coming of age. I was one of them. We were neighbors and friends. Even now, I remember the musical lilt of voices carrying stoop to stoop on warm summer nights; hushed conversation, shapeless figures huddled in porch light, the glow of cigarette, the waft of smoke and laughter, the distance of it all now.
The Irish settled in Central New York because the landscape reminded them of home. And while my grandparent’s generation rarely spoke of Ireland without needed prompting, they had little reservation about their culture.
On a small patch in Syracuse, the Irish built a community around a church and a school and named it Tipperary Hill.
This March, as we celebrate our Irishness and our blessings, I recall an old photograph of friends sitting across from Tipp Hill’s legendary “Green Light,” the only traffic light in America with the green shining above the red.
And while most vintage photos illuminate an impenetrable history, we four, friends from school days at St. Patrick’s, were able to sit for the shot again.
The original was taken at time when families gathered for Sunday dinner. At my grandmother’s table, those days, the honored guest was often a new arrival from Ireland. One that would have been “sent for” and expected to help the next relative at home in line for “the States.”
The old ones were excited to hear news from the “old country.” Neighbors were sent for. Chairs brought in. Water added to the soup! Those afternoons we heard a version of the English language that had been distilled into Irish-English from Irelands’ sixteenth century bards (poets); efficient, harmonious, musical, idiomatic speech.
Years later, I decided to research the origin of the bards and the bardic schools. I started with Robin Flower’s book, “The Oral Tradition,” a memoir of life on the Blasket Islands located off the coast of County Kerry. Flower and other scholars studied the form of Irish spoken there to learn the written forms of the Islander’s expressions. They recognized that the way of life on the island would soon disappear. For hundreds of years settlements of pure Irish speakers had been pushed westward to where the cultivation of the old literary tradition finally rested. “By the sea and in the mountains the language held its ground…”
Pre-Christian Celtic peoples recorded no written histories. The bards were trained to memorize and transmit them. And just as monastic scribes of a later age embellished their work with colorful, intricate, enigmatic drawings, the bards embellished words, attaching eloquence and greatness to them.
The Irish settled in Central New York because the landscape reminded them of home.
In translation, it was the language spoken at my grandmother’s table.
A double-parked car was not towed, but “pulled out.” One might be “desperate nervous” or “heart-scalded” and “God’s help was never far away.” A film critic might “prefer a little more grit for the eye,” one that
messed up should be “got and done,” a violin was an “instrument of sorrow.”
In Upperchurch County Tipperary, I asked historian Con Ryan if there were any characters left in Ireland, Con replied, “they put the children on the buses and educate the character out of them! But there are a few left, Jim d’Mill, for one, and I suppose you want me to say something about him?
Well, when Jim walks into a room all conversation stops. All waiting not so much to hear what he says, but for the way he says it!”
Later, I reached the genuine article himself and asked the same question, salting it a bit, reminding him of Con’s words. “Ah, there are! They’re still breeding a few here and there. There are a few developing. The mark of their fathers and mothers are still on them.” When I asked if he wouldn’t like to be looking in a mirror now, he began to answer before the question registered, then laughingly said, “It’s only with age that one assumes the role of character. I hope they’re still breeding a few of them anyway!”
And while it is not absolutely necessary to travel to Ireland for a great story or research, the Irish encourage us to come over “for the good that’s in it.”
When I return in the spring, a fisherman from Doolin promised to row me out to Inisheer, the smallest of the Aran Islands, in a leather currach for stories from a dozen fishermen like himself. When I asked about a wave catching us, he said, “Well now, wouldn’t our problems be over?”
I think of Ireland whenever I hear a wonderful lyric from the “Song for the Mira” by Allister MacGillivray, “Can you imagine a piece of the Universe more suited for princes and kings…” To that sentiment, I always add memories of childhood on Tipperary Hill and the wide expanses of Burnet Park.
We are drawn to storytellers like starlings, swarming to their punchlines before rising and falling in explosions of laughter. I travel to Ireland as Robin Flower did, to study and preserve my heritage and to collect stories. It is a great joy for me.
There is great joy, as well, in coming home again, seeing old friends, settling scores, calling the first 50 years a draw. All the while, in the negotiation and summing of memory, as keepers of the past, as we reach a certain age and assume the role of character, we earn the rank of Bard on Tipperary Hill.
John Francis McCarthy has been a professional photographer since the 1970s. The rich vein of life on Tipperary Hill, in Syracuse, settled by canal builders, and other immigrants fleeing famine and oppression, inspires his work. His first studio/gallery was on East Fayette and Bank Alley and featured in the Syracuse New Times as the impetus for artist’s lofts in Armory Square. McCarthy’s Finger Lakes Photography gallery is in Skaneateles.
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