All mothers are the same in most ways. Up close, however, they are also all different: God doesn’t create any two things exactly alike. Irish mothers may not be for everyone. They spoil their boys and make a pact of solidarity with their girls, that is, like a stance of “we women against the unthinking world.” They give their children lifelong, unbreakable loyalties—in my mother’s case, to a United Ireland, the Irish Republican Army (IRA) that she knew in the 1920s, and the Catholic Church. Injustice must never be forgotten, even in hell. At the same time, like the Irish men, they are storytellers; you never know if what they tell you is completely true, or has just a grain of truth, or is totally imagined.
My mother and the other boys and girls of her time in the villages of Ireland at the dawn of the 20th century could only go to the fourth year of elementary school. They loved school and the young women who came over from England to teach them. Those teachers were the only English people I ever heard my mother speak well of. (Classes beyond the fourth grade were in the towns and were too expensive.) Later in life, in a much different context, she praised the British army’s sergeants. She told me the IRA would have been more effective if it had some English sergeants.
My mother rarely talked of their farm work. They moved hay, I know, and managed donkeys which they named after English politicians. Life seems to have begun for them when the IRA battled the British army in the early 1920s in the first colonial uprising against the mighty British Empire. Her brothers were jailed; their house was ransacked by the soldiers looking for guns.
When she was already an old woman, my mother told me she once followed, for three days, an Irishman working for the English government, and then gave all the information she had gathered about the man’s daily schedule to the local IRA commander. She was still in her teens then, the IRA man in his early twenties. The Irish man she followed was shot as he came out of his home the next morning as his wife looked on. We were walking slowly around Riverdale in New York City as she told me that story, admiring the houses and gardens. “It was a house like that,” she said pointing to a trim little house almost hidden behind bushes. “We were too young. We had no right to kill that man,” she said.
She never really ended her war with the English. Years later she would buy a more expensive sweater made in Ireland rather than a cheaper and better quality sweater made in England.
When “the troubles” ended, she went to New York with my father who promised he would go with her any place in the world she wanted to go. That’s the kind of talk any woman likes. They lived on East 21st Street in Manhattan, which is now a well-off area but was far from that in the 1920s, when the Third Avenue EL ran past the tenements and there was an Irish bar on every corner. I was born and another boy, and then we moved from the drama of old New York to the Bronx that had only Yankee Stadium and the Bronx Zoo to recommend it. They were more than enough of course for young boys.
There were four children when my father died and my mother began another long guerrilla war, this time with the NYC Welfare Department. We were lucky. The Welfare workers were the same type of polite Protestant ladies who had taught her in Ireland; but there were many things they didn’t have to know, including the presence of her brother who lived with us and helped financially. Luckily we had a long hallway in our apartment. Whoever answered the doorbell and found the Welfare lady standing there was to call back into the apartment, “It’s the Welfare lady.” The long hallway gave my uncle time to hide in the closet, while my mother walked slowly to the door to greet her guest and bring her into the apartment.
My mother had a deep personal belief in the Blessed Mother. I think she believed that only Mary really understood her problems. It was part of the solidarity she saw among women.
Two of her sons became Jesuit priests, the only girl became a Sister of Charity, and the third boy became a US Marine who fought in Korea and raised a lovely family.
My mother and the other Irish immigrants were all democrats. Franklin D. Roosevelt was their hero, until on the eve of World War II, he drew close to Britain. He never lost their vote, however.
I was sent to the Philippines as a Jesuit missionary. After I had been here 10 years or so, I asked her where she thought the country was. “Down here Cuba,” she told me. There were things that mattered in life and things that didn’t.
She recited an old poem when her turn to sing or perform came during family parties. The poem is about a person returning to Ireland after a long absence. As the ship draws close to the Irish coast, she sees the dawn break on the hills of Ireland. You could literally hear a pin drop as she recited.
Denis Murphy works with the Urban Poor Associates [email@example.com].