My mother was born in County Galway, on the ruggedly-beautiful, wind-swept west coast of Ireland. She was a farmer’s daughter, but never much liked the farm. She left for London, then New York City, and finally settled in Boston to be near her brother and sister. I grew up with my immigrant mother and three sisters in Dorchester and South Boston in the 1970s, in neighborhoods filled with working-class Irish families like mine. My father was being treated for schizophrenia at a VA Hospital in Lowell, and had been sick since I was a baby.
I was Irish-American, but knowing what this meant in Boston was never easy. My mother’s example helped. Like many immigrants then and now, she cleaned other people’s houses and took care of other people’s kids for very little money. She worked with her hands but wanted her kids to work with their heads. She worked nights cleaning offices in downtown Boston, and would steal pens and paper and bring them home so her only son could write bad poems and even worse essays.
She’d read them patiently and then encourage him to keep going (he has). She told me that her grandmother had published short stories back in Ireland, and I could see how proud she was of this family literary heritage.
My mother’s humor tended to be of the darker variety, and the harder things got, the more she laughed. She laughed a lot, about the orange color, rubber-like texture, and terrible taste of government cheese, and the different uses of powdered milk, and often had us laughing too. The tougher times got, the more we laughed. And we laughed a lot then.
Growing up poor in 1970s Boston, I found myself right in the middle of the city’s era-defining busing crisis, being bused from my neighborhood in white Savin Hill to a school in the mostly African-American Colombia Point section of Dorchester. There was racism aplenty in Boston back then, as now, even among Irish immigrant families like mine. Growing up, I witnessed school boycotts, riots, and saw school buses assaulted with rocks hurled by parents and students from Boston’s white and black neighborhoods. I rode those buses, heard the rocks pinging off windows, and ducked my head to avoid the flying shards.
Education was often secondary to survival. There were places you couldn’t go, people you shouldn’t talk to. The separation was geographic and psychic too. My mother encouraged me to stay out of trouble, to read and write, and it was an escape route I came to love. I decided then that I wanted to be the kind of person who crossed divides.
When we lived in shamrock-clad South Boston, I grew up hearing a version of Irishness that I’d come to loathe. We were a tribe that stuck together and bled green, this version went, who protected our own no matter what they did, even the criminals like psychopathic mobster Whitey Bulger, who lived down the street.
Being Irish somehow required us to defend the de facto apartheid that had defined Boston for decades. “Irish Pride” was a mixture of tribalism, resistance to change, hatred of liberals like Ted Kennedy and federal district Judge Arthur Garrity, and straightforward racism (often referred to loudly as “Southie Pride”). I wanted none of it, especially since I’d never felt the need to proclaim my own Irishness or denounce anyone else for who they were or where they came from. My mother always told me she hated the color green, and I came to understand why.
In high school, I began reading Irish literature and history in my spare time. I’d come to identify with the Irish experience of struggling with limited resources, of suffering discrimination and colonial oppression, of being denied opportunity because of where you came from. I’d come to learn that the Irish experience with oppression was the African-American experience too, and the experience of countless immigrant groups.
Ireland is a post-colonial nation that has always suffered its share of famines, social injustice, violence, lack of economic opportunity, and systemic discrimination. My mother’s immigration was just a small part of Ireland’s tragic history of diaspora, but there was also the redeeming, life-affirming quality of Ireland’s great literature and music, a rich culture that transcended the pain of loss and leaving.
We were Boston-Irish and poor; we lived in public housing (Old Colony in South Boston); my father wasn’t part of our family because he was institutionalized with mental illness -- throughout my childhood, he was the elephant in the room; oftentimes, my mother worked three jobs to keep food on the table. We didn’t talk about poverty or our missing father. We laughed, we listened to James Brown and danced in the living room with the radio on, we ate macaroni and cheese from a white box from the USDA, made with powdered milk. Meanwhile, I read the short stories of James Joyce and the poetry of Seamus Heaney, fleeing to a better place where words could redeem.
But deprivation and loss wasn’t just the Irish experience in Boston. It was shared across the city. Being Irish connected me to the African-American kids I went to public school with, despite the ways in which Boston’s Irish-American politicians tried to play “us” against “them.” I learned that my mind didn’t have to be segregated, even if Boston was. This became for me the ultimate expression of being Boston Irish, and this was something I discovered not in the hardscrabble, segregated streets but in books that transported me mercifully through time and space to a saner place of acceptance and toleration for all. I would have the sole right to define my identity, no matter what anyone else said or believed.