I’m proud to be invited here today, but to use an Irish word, I confess to being a little verklempt. On my way in, I was handed a very special message that arrived only a short time ago and that I’ve been asked to share with you. It’s a tweet from the President of the United States, Donald Trump, who spent two years at Fordham,
It reads as follows: “I was Fordham’s best student ever. Nobody even close. Then I transferred to the Ivy League. Now the Rams are little league. A total disaster. Sad.”
My time at Fordham didn’t overlap with President Trump’s. As a matter of fact, for eight years I took the Bx 20 Bus past Fordham to attend the borough’s most prestigious Catholic educational institutions, Manhattan Prep and Manhattan College. I then threw caution to the wind, left behind Catholic schools, and put myself in the hands of the Jesuits.
In the end, I wound up with the best of all possible worlds–a Christian Brother’s education and a Jesuit diploma. That said, I want to acknowledge my debt to the Jesuits, not just as teachers but as friends and mentors. Father Daniel Ryan was a formative influence on my life; Joe O’Hare published some of my earliest work in America magazine; the late George Hunt was a dear companion, counsellor and guide
The debt runs both ways. My daughter graduated from Boston College and Fordham Law School; my son from Fordham Lincoln Center. In terms of the tuition checks I wrote, I figure the Jesuits are in debt to me to the tune of about $350,000.
Which is exactly the speaking fee I’m asking for today.
Having been a speechwriter for two governors and a corporate scribe for 25 years, I became expert in fudging facts and camouflaging my cluelessness. But this once, out of respect for Father McShane, who’s risked his reputation by inviting me, I thought I might talk about a subject I actually know something about.
For the last seventy years–and for the foreseeable future–I’m an Irish American. But I’m not just Irish American or even a New York Irish Catholic. I’m in a very special category. I’m a Bronx Irish Catholic or, as we call ourselves, B.I.C.s
I know Father McShane will agree with me when I point out the primacy that B.I.C.s enjoy among our counterparts from the lesser boroughs. Let’s be honest:
the Staten Island Irish are really New Jerseyans;
the Manhattan Irish are mostly a memory;
the Queens Irish all wished they lived in Brooklyn;
and the Brooklyn Irish–besides Pete Hamill, the late, great Hugh Carey, a long-vanished baseball team, and the world’s largest concentration of hipsters–their claim to fame is a bridge.
The fact is we B.I.C.s never needed a bridge because we’re the only borough on the mainland of the United States. And our uniqueness doesn’t end there:
ours is the only borough with the definite article THE in front of it;
the only borough with a river running through it;
the only borough in the country with a baseball team–aptly nicknamed the Bombers–that has won 27 World Series;
and, at least according to the most-recent edition of the Oxford Book of Modern English Usage, the Bronx is the only place in the entire English-speaking world where “have a nice day” is pronounced “why don’t you go screw yourself.”
My native habitat was the East Bronx neighborhood of Parkchester, which we always referred by our parish name, St. Raymond’s, which was pretty much divided between Irish and Italians. Back in the 1950s, there were tensions. An Italian-American carting outfit had emblazoned on the side of its garbage trucks–I’m not making this up–“We Cater Irish Weddings.”
St. Raymond’s schoolyard could sometimes feel like an ethnic Serengeti where only the strong survived, and the rest of us tried to blend in with the asphalt. But friendships blossomed along with fights, and over time the magic of sexual attraction led to what was then referred to as “intermarriage”–an Italio-Irish marital meltdown that produced the borough’s best-looking offspring.
One notable difference between us was the way Irish and Italians celebrated two March feast days. On the 17th, we Irish honored our patron saint with high-spirited tributes and traditional Irish cuisine, like green beer and green bagels. On the 19th, Italians celebrated St. Joseph with a special pastry, zeppelo di San Giuseppe Girls wore red carnations and boys red ribbons.
As a kid, I never thought much about the Italian claim on St. Joseph. I chalked it up to a harmless rivalry, an ethnic tit-for-tat…or Joe for Pat. It wasn’t until a few years ago when I was living in St. Augustine’s parish in Park Slope that I mentioned it in passing to my pastor and good friend, Monsignor Ernie Fiorello.
Ernie was very proud of his Italian heritage and had a ready explanation for the Italian identification with St. Joseph: in the Roman Empire, he said, it was common for legionnaires to settle in areas where they’d been stationed, marry into the local population and take up a trade. He pointed out there’s scant evidence in the Gospels to rule out that Joseph was a Roman G.I. named Giuseppe, from Calabria–where many recruits were from–who after serving his time in Palestine, went native, settled in Nazareth, found a Jewish bride and took up the trade of carpenter.
Confronted with that fact, it suddenly dawned on me that if Joseph was Italian, Mary must have been Irish. Consider the circumstantial evidence. Her name, for instance: How many Jewish girls named Mary have you ever met? And how would Giuseppe have gotten into the all-Irish carpenters’ union without an Irish wife?
Mary stayed pure, even after she was married, and in good Irish-motherly fashion, she kept her bachelor son at home until he was 30 and treated him like he was God.
And then there’s the conclusive evidence–the case closer–the so-called Wedding Feast at Cana. We all know the story from John’s gospel: At Mary’s behest, her son performs his first public miracle, saving a wedding reception from going down the drain by turning water into wine. Now I’ve been to Jewish weddings–all wonderful, warm affairs with the huppa, the hora, the endless hors d’oeuvres–but I’ve never been to a Jewish wedding reception where the guests drank the place dry.
And ask yourself this: How likely is it that the first miracle a Jewish mother would ask of her Messiah son isn’t to get into Harvard; isn’t to become a doctor; isn’t to marry a nice Jewish girl; but to reload the wine bar at somebody else’s wedding reception? I won’t ask for a show of hands of how many of you buy this story, but for me it has more holes than a golf course.
What, then, really happened at Cana? The gospel writer can be forgiven for getting it wrong. He’d never heard of a celebration that went on for so long that the fun-loving guests liquidated the libations and necessitated the first-century equivalent of a beer run. But the answer is so glaringly self-apparent, it’s bewildering that in the two millennia since, no one ever caught on.
The wedding feast at Cana was in fact–it couldn’t have been anything else–but an Irish wake.
If I’m right–and I invite any biblical scholars in the audience to examine the evidence–if Irish Mary and Italian Joseph gave their son a Puerto Rican name–Jesus–then Our Savior was an Irish-Italian, Spanish-speaking native of Israel.
The theological implications aside, what a perfect candidate for mayor of New York. And what a reminder that the old cliché is true: On St. Patrick’s Day everyone, no matter who they are, has a bit of Irish in them.
That’s especially true here in New York. We don’t observe this feast day quite the same way as they do in Ireland, where it’s always been a drier, quieter, less boisterous affair. That’s because as well as honor Ireland’s national saint, we recall an American story of immigrant struggle, survival and ultimate triumph, a story that though it ends happily, began in tragedy with an imperial government in London whose policy of malign indifference and legislative malice put economic theory ahead of human suffering and produced Europe’s largest toll of civilian deaths between the Black Death and the World Wars.
In the single decade between 1845 and 55, while a million Irish perished in the Great Hunger, two million–a quarter of the Irish population–fled. A million passed over South Street. They were met with a wall of distrust and hostility.
The American Party–the largest third party in history–sought to deny them citizenship. The governor of Massachusetts compared them to, quote, the “barbarian horde” that overthrew the Roman Empire. The country’s most famous cartoonist depicted them as half-men, half apes. “[They] are at work night and day,” warned a prominent minister, “to break down the institutions of this country.”
No Irish Need Apply, we were told.
But we applied anyway.
We mined coal, dug canals, laid track, scrubbed floors, scoured privies.
We changed the country’s politics, transformed its cities, confronted and defied those who claimed America was theirs alone.
We fought and died in the country’s wars.
We insisted on the rights of working people and refused to accept that the many must live on what remains from the banquets of the few.
We shared in our country’s failures as well as successes, sometimes turning our backs on those denied what we had gained. But we never lost confidence that wrongs could be righted, that the genius of our country is, as Robert Kennedy put it, “its refusal to accept that the future must endlessly repeat the past.”
We became fully American yet refused to forget. In doing so, we opened the door for the millions who followed. We proved that becoming American didn’t mean abjuring your religion, abandoning your heritage, turning your back on your ancestry. A century ago, we inspired, supported and supplied the war of independence that led to the Irish Republic. The hyphen in Irish-American has always been a bond–a bridge–never a minus sign.
In a short while, we’ll march up an avenue our forebears paved, away from the docks where they arrived as strangers in a strange land. We’ll march north toward the blessed Bronx and the sprawling country beyond that belongs to us as much as anyone. We’ll march past the cathedral that Archbishop John Hughes–the founder of Fordham–erected to the glory of God, the honor of St. Patrick and the memory of the famine immigrants he served so fiercely.
Amid the cheering and shared sense of pride, let me suggest that for this day to be more than an act of ethnic self-congratulation, we remember as well as celebrate.
Remember where we come from, our exodus, the journey that took us here. Remember the dream of liberty, equality, inclusion that we Irish helped shape.
Remember that the dream is alive in each of us, in our willingness to see in the millions uprooted and dispossessed, those fleeing persecution, deprivation, starvation, those seeking some measure of hope and opportunity for their children, not a faceless horde of strangers, not an alien race.
But the faces of our ancestors.
An image of ourselves.
So that, “now and in a time to be, wherever green is worn are changed, changed utterly…”
God bless America!
Up the Republic!
Let’s go, Rams!
As we say in the Bronx, have a nice day.