It’s Paddy, Not Patty… and Other Thoughts for St. Patrick’s Day

It’s my Blogday! That’s a word I invented for Blog Birthday: I posted my very first dispatch, “What is a Narrowback Slacker?” on this site exactly one year ago today. I had written it as sort of a St. Patrick’s Day Post, figuring it was as good a time as any to explain what I was calling myself, and why.

Obviously, when I was growing up, St. Patrick’s Day was a pretty big deal. But it wasn’t a Hallmark card sort of holiday, nor was it the bacchanal you’ll see in the pubs throughout this month. It was a mostly formal and kind of solemn but at the same time festive affair. There were dances held throughout the month, at various local halls, with live music and dancing. My parents went to them all; we kids often had to work, serving pitchers of beer and corned beef. On March 17, we’d start the day with an Irish breakfast and then go to church, and finish up by marching in the parade, we kids with the local Irish American marching band, and my parents with the Ancient Order of Hibernians.

These lovely traditions still persist among immigrants and second generation Irish Americans, but they are largely eclipsed by the antics of the crowds watching the parades from the sidelines and crowding the bars before and after. The juxtaposition of parade participants (decked out in their Sunday best and marching with their home counties) with the parade revelers (many of them drunk at 11:00 am and wearing green plastic bowlers) offers a snapshot study of the Irish American generational experience. The immigrant puts on a suit and tie and a green-white-and-gold sash, and celebrates the feast day of his homeland’s patron saint. The immigrant’s amadán grandson wears a totally offensive t-shirt, drinks green beer, and starts a fight.

Our parents and grandparents headed here to become American, but it takes a few generations for that to really happen. I worry that we lose something important along the way: the music, the history, the work ethic. The narrowback generation is the one that sort of straddles both sides. It’s our responsibility to make sure these kids of ours don’t become too American. I suspect that most immigrant families, no matter where they are from, struggle with the same feeling.

Anyway, here’s a list of observations from one New York City narrowback.

Twenty Signs That You Are a Narrowback

1. In all the lullabies that your parents sang to you as a baby, somebody died.

2. Even if you haven’t gone to mass in years, you bless yourself every time you drive by a church.

3. Your “starter house” is also the house that you plan to die in.

4. There are two types of wakes: Good Wakes and Sad Wakes. You will laugh at least a little during—and have a few drinks at the pub after—both of them.

5. At some point in your life, you have walked into a “Good Wake” and thought to yourself, “Maybe I’ll meet someone.”

6. You have danced the “Siege of Ennis” many times. Extra points if   you spent some portion of your life thinking it was called “The Siege of Venice” and wondering if the Irish had ever invaded Italy.

7. You don’t write out your check to the bride and groom until you see if they have hired a band or a DJ.

8. In the event of the zombie apocalypse, you will be armed with a hurley.

9. You know and love  countless traditional songs. “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling” is not one of them.

10. “Irish Football” has nothing to do with the University of Notre Dame.

It's kind of like Quidditch, without brooms or English people.

It’s kind of like Quidditch, with no brooms or English people.

11.  “Irish Food” is always breakfast food. Double points if you admit that you actually like blood pudding.

12. You never really understood why the Pogues were considered punk.

I guess the Irish INVENTED punk, then? Because this sound existed long before the 1970s. 

13. You feel like a leech on society if you send your kids to public school.

14. “Going to” the St. Patrick’s Day Parade means you are going to march in it.

15. It’s Paddy, not Patty.

16. You were a teenager before you ate a vegetable that wasn’t boiled beyond recognition.

17. You have at least one relative who talks about recent immigrants exactly the same way that nativists talked about the Irish in the nineteenth century.

The one element that just won't mix. From Puck Magazine,  1889.

The one element that just won’t mix.From Puck, 1889.

18. You have a thing in your kitchen drawer that you call a “potato peeler.” You may not realize that almost everyone else in America calls it a “vegetable peeler.”

19. It’s acceptable to drink hard, so long as you work harder.

20. You will damned well go to college, but if you cop an attitude that in any way suggests that you think you are smarter than the parents who worked their asses off to send you there, there will be hell to pay.

I could go on all day, but I’ll cut myself off here. Consider it a polite Irish Exit.


Who doesn’t want to go to Irishtown?

I’ve been a fan of the Bowery Boys podcast ever since I first stumbled across their charming investigation into Rockaway Beach back in 2012. Having grown up here, and listened to every old timer’s take on what happened, how, and why, it was refreshing to listen to two outsiders’ impressions of our little peninsula and its unique history. They do their homework, combing through books and newspaper archives, and they talk about the place with the unabashed enthusiasm of people discovering it for the first time (there are people in this city who’ve never heard of Irishtown!). After that podcast, I was hooked, and so was my son. We always download an episode or two when we’re heading out for a car trip, and learn a little something about NYC history, legend, and lore along the way.  Check out their blog for primary sources, photos, and more.

For RBNY locals, the Rockaway Beach (episode 140)  and the Robert Moses (100) episodes are  must-listens. The latter, in particular, left me pondering whether what Rockaway need now is a  Moses-esque dictator to reign in the bureaucracy and get the boardwalk replaced already. Moses’ legacy is complex, to say the least: he built a lot of stuff, and destroyed a lot in the process. But going into our second summer without a boardwalk, it’s worth considering that maybe getting something built that doesn’t quite please everyone is better than getting nothing built at all. 

What is a Narrowback Slacker?

Back in the 1990s, the term “slacker” was applied broadly to my generation, and frankly I’m comfortable with it. I am Gen X. I work for myself, at home, usually in jeans, and I set my own hours. I do not check emails at the dinner table.  I do not have sweeping aspirations for my children, beyond teaching them to make good decisions and to be good people. In general, I do not “Lean In.” But I am, at the most basic level, happy and content. Slacker? I’m fine with that.

Narrowback” is a term that refers to the first-generation American children of Irish immigrants. I’m one of them.  My father was a tough little Kerryman who came to New York in the 1950s in search of his American dream. My mother was the child of a Kerryman on one side, and the grandchild of a Kerryman (and a Kerrywoman) on the other. All these immigrants came to this country and worked their asses off, mostly in construction trades. And as a rule, their American children don’t have to work as hard. We go to college, standing on the broad shoulders of our parents and grandparents, and graduate into white collar jobs. We don’t build skyscrapers or dig tunnels. We have softs hands. We have narrow backs.

I like to remind myself, when I’m feeling overwhelmed with work or kids or All The Things, that I have a pretty cush little life. Thanks, Kerrymen.