Saturday, March 7, 2015

An Acre memory- St. Patrick's Day

Reunion Booklet, 1920
Saint Patrick’s Day is really one of my favorite holidays. Sure there’s the big three: Christmas, Thanksgiving, and Easter. Even Halloween and Valentine’s Day have their good points. But March 17th is something special. Once, when landing at Logan, a young business woman who was visiting Boston for the first time, randomly turned to me and asked what it was about St. Patrick’s Day and Americans. Some might say it’s the search for identity. Others might say it’s about the craic. Others might think of it as the Irish form of “Festivus for the rest of us” (a la Seinfeld). Today my family celebrates far differently than my parent’s time. My wife and I took a trip down memory lane and reminisced on how the day was celebrated when we were kids in the 1960s.

Growing up when and where I did in Lowell’s Acre almost made St Patrick’s Day a holy day of obligation. This wasn’t just a religious holy day, it was cultural as well. Much like Advent prepares us for Christmas or Lent for Easter, once the calendar turned to March, arrangements began. Certain foods had to be prepared, special songs were rehearsed and every item of green clothing had to be readied. At Saint Patrick School, the annual reunion show was planned weeks in advance. The show goes back to the late nineteenth century, if not earlier. Records show that the Parish would have entertainments of various sorts put on by the different societies, grade school children, and parishioners. The Parish Archives has copies of programs going back almost 100 years.
When I was attending St Patrick’s, about half the class had Irish surnames. Most of the students were half Irish and half something else, like myself. A few had no Irish in them, but still were required to sing, “Galway Bay.” A friend of mine, with whom I am still friends these many decades later, surprised me when I asked if he remembered the old songs. He confessed that he despised having to wear the green and to this day can’t stand the sound of “Oh the Days of the Kerry Dancing.” I still do not understand that.

The show was the big event of the season. The Sisters would walk the entire student body, about 400 kids, from the School to Market Street to Prescott to Merrimack and to the Auditorium. We walked 2 by 2 the full 2.4 miles. The show was always at 7 pm on March 16th. If one can imagine the entire Lowell Memorial Auditorium was completely sold out year after year. I’m not sure if it is even there today, but behind the maroon curtain and stage was seating for the entire school chorus dressed in white shirts with green ribbons for girls and ties for boys. The Sisters, wearing a single green ribbon pinned to their habit, stood guard to ensure no shenanigans would besmirch the good name of Saint Patrick School.

The show began the same each year with the pipes and drums of Clan McPherson Band from Lawrence. The drum major in his tall bearskin hat would lead the pipers in with his silver baton flashing in the spot light. The bass drummer wearing the leopard pelt would twirl his drum sticks. You could feel the vibrations of the drum beats, not only physically, but in your very soul. The pipers would all lift their pipes and march into the hall playing “Scotland the Brave.” For you purists, remember we’re all Celts.
School Children Prepare for Show, 1950s
Singers would sing songs from the auld sod like “I’ll Take You Home Again, Kathleen” or “It’s a Great Day for the Irish.” The audience would frequently chime right in with the singers, after all these were the songs we were raised on. Little did most of us know that many of those Bing Crosby favorites were not from the auld sod and were not even written by Irish-Americans. The genre at the turn of the century was an appeal for Irish type vaudeville music and every musician, no matter the background, penned Irish sounding tunes. Those became the standards heard in every Irish-American home. But the music did its job; it joined the crowd into one communal voice.

Part of the entertainment of the night was seeing the first and second graders do a little song and dance on the stage. What would really tear up Nana and the crowd was that the girls wore little shamrock print skirts with aprons and dust caps. The boys wore green, silk pantaloons with a cummerbund. We had to go on stage and act out Mick McGilligan’s Ball. I remember this well, because I still have my pantaloons. I stole them. But my clearest recollection is how silk pantaloons, that were homemade using a loose elastic band to hold them up, can very easily slide down as you dance around a stage. And, how funny it is to see a 6 year old holding up his silk, green pantaloons in front of hundreds and hundreds of people. Yes, I’m speaking from experience.

The high point of the evening were the Irish step dancers. Step dancing had been a tradition at St Pat’s School for decades. My mother-in-law attended St Pats and took lessons back in the 1920s. When my time came around, it was common for boys and girls to go to the school hall each Saturday with their ghillies (soft shoes) and brogues (hard shoes) and Jim Madden would put them through their routines. Jim was a task master, but his mother (from Ireland) was a bit more brutal. When my own kids took part in competitions, at their first feis (competition) who was there but Jim Madden, a bit older, but still with perfect posture. The crowd at the auditorium always listened to see if the girls made their clicks with their hard shoes. Their green dresses with simple gold braiding seem plain compared to today’s outfits. (One of my daughter’s dresses cost $1500 and had to be imported from Ireland.) At that time, dancers could wear their medals won at feisana (competitions) and to see the medals all lift and fall to the beat of the music was part of the thrill.
Brenda in Step Dance Costume on Suffolk Street
At the end of the evening the pastor would always walk out and declare the news every schoolchild had been waiting to hear- there would be no school the next day. That did not mean you could sleep in the next morning. Mass was at 9 am, not just Mass, but Solemn High Mass. The celebrant wore the gold cope with the embroidered image of Patrick on the back. The opening song was “Hail Glorious Apostle Selected by God” and the closing would be “Hail Glorious St Patrick, Dear Saint of Our Isle.” Every seat in the church was filled. It was like Christmas when folks you hadn’t seen all year would show up. They were coming home.

And then there was the feast, or so some say. Personally I can’t stand corned beef. I want to be very careful here when we talk about corned beef. Every Irish American talks about the sainted grandmother’s recipe for corned beef and cabbage she carried off the boat from Ireland. The debate about this can cause whole families to stop speaking to each other. Corned beef is not the most traditional of dishes in Ireland. At the time of our ancestors beef was pretty expensive. When they came to America beef was more accessible and corned beef fit right into their price range. So maybe Nana’s recipe isn’t so Irish. In my house, corned beef was served, but it was more likely to be a boiled ham shoulder with cabbage, turnips, and boiled potatoes. Hey the Irish have great humor, literature, music, and poetry. No one ever said they had haute cuisine. Then there’s the debate over soda bread. With caraway seeds or without? With raisins or currants? Let’s not forget the green beer too. To round off this Irish meal, my French mother would make cupcakes with green frosting, and then remind me that St Joseph Day was only 2 days away.

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