Trinity College, Frank McCourt and Hyphenated People
AH! To be given a voice on the pages of Irish American News rounds out the corners of my life! This monthly column feeds closeness to my Irish ancestry as well as a lightening rod of appreciation for all that’s available living and working in America. This includes three first generation Irish-American daughters, four grandchildren, all of them bonded to their young cousins and elder relatives in Ireland.
When I migrated to Boston in the fifties with a younger brother and sister, I often reminisce, harboring self-induced pressure to assimilate quickly into Irish-America, learning how not to pronounce words that gave away the place of my rearing. When I visit Ireland I’m immediately informed I have an American accent, and when in the US I am repeatedly asked about my Irish accent. This prompts discovering exactly who you are and find the best in who you’ve become.
Frank McCourt addressed this conflict when he spoke in a crowded auditorium at Dublin’s Trinity College in the aftermath of the publication of Angel’s Ashes, a first novel lusciously sweetened by a Pulitzer Prize.
McCourt, a school teacher in New York, immediately climaxed to the status of celebrity in a growing litany of attributes that propelled him, his mother Angela and the city of Limerick into global literary limelight.
His first words spoken at the Trinity podium focused on the hyphen in Irish-American. When we are born Irish, he exclaimed, and eventually make our way to America, we become the hyphen in Irish-American. This translated into the reality we no longer belong in Ireland but haven’t yet surmounted the challenges, customs, speech patterns and abundance of opportunity in the newly adopted foreign country. Like birds on a telephone wire, we linger comfortably in the dash space of a hyphen sometimes growing, often not. We are a talented lot, ambitious, creative, poets, musicians all of us endowed with a remarkable work ethic. In addition, no nationality can compete with Irish temperament when a scalding blistering criticism is launched against church, state, educators, the lazy and the wealthy. We are also a nation of begrudgers, grudges passed from one generation to the next blessedly dying when a coffin is lowered in a freshly dug grave.
On that day in Dublin at Trinity College, none portrayed blistering better than McCourt. He lambasted Trinity’s academic hallowed protestant ivory tower where he once sought admission to a doctoral program. He was a nobody, his application rejected, his request flung on the nearest dung heap. Jabbing mercilessly at an institution welcoming him on its historic podium when he was rich and famous though shunning him when he sought entry. He extracted with energy and gusto a pound of academic flesh sliced by eloquence as sharp as a surgeon’s knife. The usually mild mannered, pale faced, teacher who commandeered the coveted but scalding title of “Honorable Survivor of an Irish upbringing in Limerick.” His family too poor to receive any charity from Saint Vincent de Paul’s Society for reasons to do with their mother considered “a loss” because Angela was a quasi-widow, husband and father off in England drinking his wages, abandoning wife and family. Why a drunken scoundrel of a husband’s lifestyle should be shouldered by a desperate woman attempting to feed and rear a family speaks to a graceless and merciless religious charity system.
When McCourt talked about identification lodging in the hyphen he exclaimed the obvious: our roots are in Ireland, whereas our success and abundant loaves of bread and whiskey reside in America. The hyphen also becomes a symbol of the hay shed where feed for cows, goats and sheep are kept warm and dry, and yet poor families like the McCourt’s shivered in heat barren environs devastated by hunger, huddled together in a bed to keep warm. We are forever grappling with our ancestry, our rearing, the nuns, priests, fathers who drank to excess and flogged children and as McCourt documented, drank what they earned “until all that was left was the stagger home, parent fights, tears, fear and hunger.”
What Frank McCourt neglected to articulate was the presence of hyphen in Spanish American, Mexican American and all those hyphenated people who arrived in the United States, contributing enormously to the land of opportunity. The same sentiments exist for all immigrant nationalities. For all of us bubbling in that melting pot, the hyphen served as a bridge to our past. As I age, thankfully free from dotage, I spend more time transporting thoughts, recalling treasured memories across that hyphened bridge undeterred by language or cultural identity.
Following the death of our father, our mother, at the age of thirty-two was forced to leave an economically ravished emerald isle leaving behind her three children with her sister. No work for men, zero available for women like so many before her, she left for Boston, gained employment and sent money home to support her children.
Good things happen to families maneuvering a bad streak. An uncle, James Hamill was informed of our plight. In his youth he fled Ireland for political reasons, became a physician, the first doctor to set up a medical practice in Las Vegas when its growth began to explode. Learning of our plight, he doled out money for our education, received yearly report cards from nuns and De la Salle Brothers and after seven years when we joined our mother in America, the generous uncle paid for and supported my brother at Boston College and Tufts Medical School.
Our Guardian Angels watched over us as did our aunt who became ill and died three months after our ship docked in New York.
Alas, we were misinformed about the gold nuggets on the streets in America, but we found our ways and thrived. Meanwhile the hyphen continues to serve its purpose as a resting place straddling two continents.
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Trinity College, Frank McCourt and Hyphenated People