This isn’t an actual Irish ghost story.
I actually do have a few of those, but I’ll save them for another time. No… this is more an exploration of the sub-conscious of an Irish-American writer as we approach that great parody of the Irish-American identity, “St. Paddy’s Day.”
Now, I say parody out of no disrespect for the Irish, the Americans, the hyphen or the saint. The term applies to using some twisted perception of “Irishness” as an excuse to get drunk, loud and disorderly in vast, overwhelming numbers.
Parody would also characterize the hundreds of images seen in store windows, on front lawns and windows and on TV of a runty, drunk and pugnacious, red-headed character, fists up and with a clay pipe sticking out of the side of his mouth, who curiously has found himself a long-term gig, when not acting as the symbol of “St. Paddy’s Day,” as the logo of a nationally famous Indiana sports complex, which is also vaguely associated with a Catholic university.
I could go on about how these characterizations have their pedigree in nineteenth-century, anti-Irish, Hogarthian, British caricatures of “Paddy and his Pig” to suggest that the Irish were too “savage” and “infantile” to govern themselves.
Or, I could go off on a rant about the hypocrisy of that well-known and nationally-renowned liberal, Catholic institution of higher education, which loudly and indignantly condemns as “racist” the use of Native American caricatures as “mascots” by other universities and sports teams, but still displays a bigoted and degrading caricature of the Irish as its mascot on its athletic website and on its “team apparel.”
No… that’s not at all what I want to talk about today…
I had the opportunity earlier this week to appear on “The Dead End,” a talk-show hosted by Richard Long, author of the best-selling thriller, The Book of Paul, on Blog Radio out of New York. I had a lot of fun doing the show with Richard and two other Irish-American writers, Karen Victoria Smith, author of Enslaved and Dark Dealings, and Michelle Browne, author of The Loved, The Lost, The Dreaming: A Horror Anthology. (Connections to these talented writers and their works can be found at the end of this article).
If you have a few minutes-about 120 of them-take a listen to the show… we had a grand time.
In his exploration of how an Irish-American identity informed our writing, Richard asked whether the Irish version of Catholicism make the Irish different from other ethnic groups. I didn’t respond to this question (the curse of the introvert… I was still processing it while the show moved on to another subject). Having grown up among other ethnic groups, who are generally Catholic-Italians, Sicilians, Puerto Ricans, Polish-there is one area where I believe the Irish differ vastly, the Irish sense of sexuality.
Now, I know we Catholics all received the same rigorous indoctrination from the good sisters in “Catholic School.” Over our eight years of grade school, we memorized the Baltimore Catechism and the nun’s drilled us in it daily.
“Raymond! What is mortal sin?”
“Sister, ‘Mortal sin is a grievous offense against the law of God.’”
“Why is this sin called mortal, Raymond?
“‘This sin is called mortal, or deadly, because it deprives the sinner of sanctifying grace, the supernatural life of the soul,’ Sister.”
“Good! What are the sources of mortal sin, Raymond?”
“‘The chief sources of actual sin are: pride, covetousness, lust, anger, gluttony, envy, and sloth, and these are commonly called capital sins,’ Sister.”
“Are sins of lust mortal sins?”
“And what would become of your soul if you were to die with a sin of lust on your soul, Raymond?”
“That’s right, children. Remember! Our Lord said that the one who lusts even if only in his thoughts, still commits a deadly sin. Lust is a mortal sin in thought, in word and in deed. Thinking about it, or talking about it, or committing it will condemn your soul to the agonies of Hell for all eternity.”
Is it any wonder I have nightmares?
My sense of my Irish-Catholic sexuality is angst… even in my wild-child days of the 1970’s as a swinging bachelor and bar owner in New York City, sex always seemed a somewhat forbidden fruit. Somewhere, even in the darkness of my bachelor boudoir, was a little, chubby-cheeked, Irish kid dressed in the white and navy-blue of our Catholic school uniform reciting, “I would burn in Hell for all eternity, Sister.”
By the way, if any of you out there also suffer from this same, Irish-Catholic anxiety over sex, do not read James Joyce’s, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. The Jesuit’s sermon on damnation-the black, eternal, smothering fires of Hell-will put you over the edge.
Or, for that matter, Dante’s Inferno and Purgatorio where the punishments in the afterlife of those guilty of the sins of lust are revealed in lured detail. There’s no sex or sadism in the Paradiso, which probably explains why no one reads it.
In the second chapter, “Soldiers of Christ,” I tell the story of a young boy, Mickey Dwyer, falling in love for the first time but not understanding what’s happening to him. As he is about to file into Sunday mass with his best friend, Joey Benedict, and the rest of his eighth-grade classmates, Mickey tries to catch a glimpse of Lorie McShea.
“As they got ready to file into the church with the rest of their class, the line of girls drew parallel with the line of boys. Mickey knew he shouldn’t be looking around—the nuns might catch him, or even worse, Joey—but he couldn’t help but look for Lori among the girls […] Mickey had never had any interest in girls. But, for the last few months, something seemed to be changing. Gradually, he began to realize that he thought he might think otherwise. He wasn’t interested in what girls did; that was all pretty silly and useless stuff as far as he was concerned. But, he was becoming interested in girls… well… because they were girls. Why? He didn’t have a clue. He never gave it much thought. But, whatever was going on, it was probably sinful and should be suppressed, because it felt so… so… strangely delightful and alluring. So, Mickey didn’t want to suppress it, especially with Lori, even if it did endanger the salvation of his immortal soul. For him, Lori was a blond-haired, blue-eyed ray of sunshine in his shadowy world of predators and power in the school yard, the playgrounds and the streets of the neighborhood” (from The Violent Season).
Later, in Chapter Four, titled ironically, “A Meeting Engagement,” another young man, Pat Green, after four years attending an all-boys, Catholic high school, finds himself in a college classroom with a beautiful and assertive young woman, who is trying to get his attention. Green of course doesn’t have a clue about what to do.
“At this point in his life, Pat Green had not shared a classroom with a member of the opposite sex since the eighth grade when he was thirteen-years old. And, he was discovering that a few things had changed since then. His memory of awkward, skinny, stringy-haired girls dressed in shapeless Catholic-school jumpers had been abruptly shattered by the image of Judy Kelly, a well-developed, auburn-haired, beauty in lipstick, eye-shadow and skirts that never quite made it over her knees when she sat in a desk less than six feet from him in two of his classes. The Jesuits of St. Xavier Academy had done nothing to prepare him for this moment except convince him that every time he so much as thought about Judy Kelly, he was committing a horrible sin and endangering his immortal soul. He never even consciously realized that it was she who had chosen to sit near him, and this had to mean something important. No, he couldn’t think. He couldn’t function. He couldn’t keep his eyes off her. He found her very act of breathing fascinating, the way she filled her stylish white blouses that moved in and out… in and out… as she took each breath causing a condition in him that any first year nursing student sitting in that cafeteria at that moment would immediately, and correctly, diagnose as hyper-ventilation” (from The Violent Season).
In the narrative related by The Violent Season, this sense of sexual naïveté and angst serves to establish the innocence of these young men who will soon be cast into the crucible of war raging in the hills and jungles of Vietnam. For one, sexuality is an act of commitment that keeps him joined to the woman who loves him and awaits his return. For the other, he finds love in the arms of an exotically beautiful woman in Vietnam but both are scarred by tragedy and war. Neither can recognize their feelings for the other.
Beannachtaí na Féile Pádraig oraibh!
The Blessing of St. Patrick’s Day to You!
Barnes & Noble: http://bit.ly/NpEy0E
Karen Victoria Smith
Barnes & Noble: http://www.barnesandnoble.com/c/karen-victoria-smith