COLUMN: O’Talian

<em>“Top o’ the morning to ye on this gray, grizzly afternoon. Kent O’ Brockman, live on Main Street, where today, everyone is a little bit Irish. Except, of course, the gays and the Italians.”</em>

— from “The Simpsons”

My paternal grandmother recently died. She was 91. She raised me. She was born in America to Italian parents. The neighborhood in South Philly that I was raised in was inhabited by a majority of people with Italian surnames. A large majority of my friends in South Philly are of Italian descent. Although my last name is English, and my paternal grandfather was mostly German, I usually considered myself to be an Italian-American. As a kid, it was what I knew.

When I went home to put my grandmother to rest a few weeks back, I contacted my mother’s sister. I wanted to see her, and I wanted us to visit my mother’s grave, which I have not done since she passed away in 2004.

I asked my Aunt Michelle about my ancestry from my mother’s side. I was always under the impression that my mother’s family was a hodgepodge of Russian, Polish and Irish blood. My aunt informed me that my maternal grandmother was 100% Irish. Her last name was Dowdell, which is extremely Irish.

Do the math. I am both ¼ Italian and ¼ Irish. I’ve been living a lie.

There is a name for people like me. O’ Talian. That is a bizarre portmanteau of “O’”, which is an Irish patronym, and Italian. “O’” actually is short for “of”. It means a descendent of a clan. So, O’ Brien means “of the Brien clan”.

I need to learn these things. The Irish are my people now. I still need to train my mind to accept this salient fact.

It might help many understand why this is a big deal if I give an abridged history of Philadelphia.

From its’ founding onward, Philadelphia was a city of WASPs. WASP being an acronym standing for White Anglo-Saxon Protestants. In spite of this fact, Philadelphia was a tolerant city towards everyone seeking a chance to flourish. William Penn, who founded my hometown, wanted it that way. He was a Quaker who left England hoping to found a Utopia of religious and social tolerance.

Starting in the mid-19th Century, and continuing for a century, Irish and Italian immigrants flooded into many Northeastern cities, and Philadelphia especially. The Irish, keeping with the county mentality, and the Italians, holding to the village mentality, carved out their own neighborhoods.

Even though the two ethnicities were separated by just a few city blocks in most Philadelphia neighborhoods, they were two very distinct cultures. Only their shared belief in Roman-Catholicism joined them.

It was not unheard of in the old days for the Irish and Italians to intermingle, or even intermarry, but it was more rare than outsiders would think.

Time changes things. In my misguided youth, it was more common for the Irish and Italians to hang out together than it was in my father’s era. But we razzed each other unmercifully. We still do.

But, that was before my Erin Enlightenment. How can I continue to feed the stereotype of the Irish being volatile, irascible drunks who love to argue when I am Irish?

If you did not find the humor in that rhetorical question, you obviously never met me.

For years, I have revelled in that legendary <a href=”https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jSuDQglbXxg” target=”_blank”>episode of “The Simpsons”</a> where a brawl breaks out at the Springfield St. Patrick’s Day parade. I can regurgitate Kent Brockman’s report from the scene verbatim:

<em>”Ladies and gentlemen, what you are seeing here is a total disregard for all the things St. Patrick’s Day stands for. All this drinking, violence, destruction of property. Are these the things we think of, when we think of the Irish?”</em>

And then there is “The Sopranos”, which is the best television show I ever watched. The show centered around the Italian Mafia in New Jersey. In one episode, a goombah who survived an assassination attempt describes his near death experience as he journeyed through Purgatory:

<em>“The Emerald Piper. That’s our Hell. It’s an Irish bar where it’s St. Patrick’s Day every day forever.”</em>

That might very well be the funniest thing ever written in the English language. And also true.

Have any of you ever been in an Irish pub on St. Patrick’s Day? I have. It is the living embodiment of the axiom “Hell on Earth”.

And this brings us to this Saturday, which is St. Patrick’s Day. One of the advantages of living in Utah is that I’ve been able, mostly, to avoid this holiday. One year, I did go to a bar in Logan on March 17th. I ordered a golden beer and was horrified to see the bartender drop green dye in my drink. I stared at her like she spit on my children.

Also, Utah drinkers are just sloppy. And intentionally getting drunk on weak Utah beer seems…desperate. I tend to stay home on St. Patrick’s Day and let these Utah lightweights make fools of themselves.

But I’m Irish now! Don’t I have a responsibility to embolden the most hideous of Irish stereotypes and drink myself into a stupor this Saturday?

Don’t the souls of my ancient Hibernian ancestors command me to a state of total inebriation, coupled with an hour of incessant dirty limericks?

Or, should I embrace the more cultured aspects of the Emerald Isle? Should I read more on the struggle for Irish independence? Most of those events happened a century ago. Many anniversary commemorations will be recognized soon.

Since I am a writer, is it my duty to read the complete works of William Butler Yeats, C.S. Lewis, George Bernard Shaw and Oscar Wilde?

Am I supposed to both drink and read? I always assume Oscar Wilde was meant to be read whilst plastered.

St. Patrick’s Day will be different this year. Regardless of how I honor my newfound heritage, I will do so with a sincere vim and vigor that is emblematic of the Irish people…my people!

ERIN GO BRAGH!

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