Gramps liked to talk about the sea and the old sailing ships that brought the Irish from their blighted potato fields to the hard cobble streets of Boston, New York and Philadelphia. There, they worked as day laborers on construction gangs, or, if they knew the right people, they got on with the fire department or the police force. Work was hard to find, especially for the Irish. Every one of them knew that a want ad ending with “INNA” meant “Irish Need Not Apply.”
Gramps worked with a blacksmith in the old country but never completed his apprenticeship. He was only sixteen when he left to find work as a blacksmith in America. Horses pulling trolleys and streetcars, clopping on cobblestones went through horseshoes with regularity and Gramps kept them shod. The horses didn’t mind that he was Irish.
By the time I got to know him, his black hair was shot with solid streaks of white, his full mustache stained yellow from cheap cigars. No one could make a muscle as big as his, and no one could tell stories with the passion and heroism of Pat McGuiness. He’d been born in the west of Ireland and never knew for sure exactly when, but he knew where: a rocky farm near in County Sligo. Cabbage, boiled with carrots for supper every night, with a joint of skinny lamb on an occasional Sunday, contributed to Gramps’ dream of a better life in America.
His father scratched off a meager living on land ruined by the potato famine of the 1880s. It was not enough to provide for a family with eight kids, let alone give them a future. One by one they left for the promise of America. They sailed away in tall ships from the Port of Cobh, Ireland, for a place called Boston. Of the eight, only six of the McGuiness brothers and sisters arrived in America. Gramps’ two youngest sisters were lost in a storm along with one hundred twenty other Irish souls off Nova Scotia.
In his Boston neighborhood Gramps met other Irishmen and joined their club, the AOH, the Ancient Order of Hibernians. Eventually, Gramps met Mary Elizabeth O’Rourke, recently arrived from Drumshanbo, a small village not thirty miles away from his family farm.
Gramps dreamed of returning to Ireland one day but never did. When word came that his mother had died he was determined to go back and see his father. A few years later a letter came from his cousin in Ballinamore. Gramps didn’t have to open it to know that he’d missed that chance too.
The captivating stories began before I started kindergarten. Stories of Irish women who chewed gum or smoked cigarettes, and, as a consequence, were left in the crossroads after dark to be tormented by banshees, were meant to be a warning. He told tall tales about mean school masters who whipped students with a blackthorn cane. Gramps said when he was whipped it was unfair because he never did anything wrong. His eyes twinkled mischievously when he told stories about girls who came to run their hands through his wavy hair when he was a lad.
My favorite stories were about the leprechauns. “Tell me again about the wee people,” I’d say.
“Well, I’ve hardly ever talked to them meself, but I’ve seen them, often in the shining of an October moon. They come out from under the shamrocks to taste the drops of rain gathered on the grass and in the crooks of the clover. The wee ones liked to play tricks on people and would leave a t’penny piece at the side of the path. They waited until a passerby come along, looking around in all directions to see if anyone was watchin’. Just as the citizen bent down to pick up the money, the wee ones would swoop in, grab the coin, and run under a sprig of grass too fast for the poor fellow to see anything but a little green wave in the clover. Then they’d laugh and laugh in tones too high to be heard by mortal men.”
My grandfather had a lifelong malady which came to be called the Irish virus. He loved the drink. It only took one and he was off. He called it many things: “John Barleycorn, drop of the dew, holy water, jug o’punch, whiskey o’, and one drink’s never enough.”
The curse of “the drink” often came close to ending his marriage, but Catholics stayed together. My grandmother struggled with the problem, as her mother had before her. They knew that their husbands got drunk whenever they drank and endured long periods of sobering up. The “troubles” they called it and said I’d be doomed as well. Not me. In my mind I said never.
Gramps’ nights of rough and rowdy drunkenness were followed by weeks of enforced abstinence and rigorous policing. Recovering from bouts with John Barleycorn also meant nursing wounds from fights with bar keepers, Publicans, as they were known, and the Garda, Gaelic for cops.
My grandfather said a couple of pints made him stronger. My grandmother said it made him smaller and slower, but Gramps never believed in anything that would constrain the quite reasonable downing of a pint of Irish whiskey, or maybe two. At five-feet-eight, he was strong for his frame. His bulldog determination got stronger as the night and the pints went on. After two or three, he felt six feet tall and knew he looked like the “strong man” Charles Atlas.
Mulligan’s Combination Bar and Grill was the centerpiece of the wild side of Irish life in our neighborhood. Sometimes, Gramps took me with him and I loved it. Women were invited on Sunday afternoons, scarcely seen the rest of the week. Men lined the bar two and three deep, particularly on Friday and Saturday nights, Gramps’ favorite time to sneak out for a quick pint.
By the time one pint became six or seven, my fiesty grandfather would begin to assess the crowd. Marching up and down behind the men at the bar he would choose the biggest of the lot. Then with a leap, he would slap his victim on the head and stand back proudly, hands on his hips. The man would turn around, face red as fire, ready to fight.
“Do ye know who I am?” Gramps would challenge. “Well, I’m Paddy McGuiness and I live in Dewey Street and Dewey Street is the toughest street in the city and the further up you go the tougher it gets and I live in the last house.”
Another leap and a hard right to the jaw of this chosen victim with a sideways kick to the crotch of the man next to him for good measure, and he had their attention. In no time at all, two of the biggest men in the house began to pummel little Paddy McGuiness.
This could not be tolerated according to the see-saw moral code of the likes of those who frequented Irish saloons. Two against one was more than a fellow could stand to watch.
“Oh, did you see what that blaggard just did to poor Pat?” one would say to another.
“Tsk. Tsk. And him just after havin’ a pint. Let’s help him out now, Mickey, shall we?”
Within moments, Gramps got help from one or two, which drew in three or four, just to even things out.
The Paddy Wagon was always parked nearby. The cops knew it would be needed sooner or later. By the time it screeched to a stop in front of Mulligan’s, there would be fifteen to twenty men fully engaged in a brawl. The cops would march them out and haul the lot of them off to the lock up downtown.
Grandmother always asked me to go with her to the jailhouse to see the example of Gramps locked up for drinking and fighting at Mulligan’s. Waiting by the door, I would hear Gramps pleading with the bailiff to let him stay in the tank for just a few more days. But the bailiff had no mercy and always released him to the care of his wife with a proper send-off. “Arragh, Pat, ye’ve learned yer lesson now, haven’t ya? Sure and won’t you be welcome into the loving arms of your dear Mary Elizabeth,” the bailiff would say as he pushed him out the door.
No sooner would Gramps step over the threshold than Grandmother would begin her saintly litany.
“Come here to me, Pat, you scoundrel. Spending the money from me table, taking bread out of the mouths of our children and today being Sunday acting like a Protestant, you scalawag. Come with me, I’ll see to your troubles and you’ll not go out alone to a wake or a dance or a hullabaloo without me breaking both of your scrawny legs and Tim Murphy’s too if he ever again sticks his ugly puss in me door looking for the likes of you. You’ll not go to Hibernians’ Hall or Mulligan’s, you blaggard, and I’ll speak to Mayor O’Brien about banning you from the parades and the cemetery where I know Thomas Kennedy keeps a bottle or two shoved under his poor wife’s tombstone.”
She took a breath, but she wasn’t finished. “Glory be to God, Pat, you’re a curse and I’ll deal with you in the coal cellar where you’ve got bottles hidden. I’ve thrown out me vanilla extract which was meant for me cakes and step lively so we don’t have to wait for a streetcar.”
Gramps would look back lovingly at the jailhouse door, but it was no use. The iron will of Mary Elizabeth would put him into solitary confinement at home with bread and water for several days until a few well-timed winks would bring a forgiving smile to her face, and the cycle would begin again.