A St. Patrick's Day Guide to the Boston Irish
Writer's Note: This is a column I wrote back when Barstool was a just a Boston paper with four writers and big dreams. In an age long before we were sponsoring the Southie Parade, when Boston was largely a Hunter-Gatherer society using stone shillelaghs. When I sent it off to Dave told me he thought it would generate a lot of buzz for us. And it did get plenty of traction. I kept seeing it re-posted in various forums – sometimes even crediting where it came from – even though I think back then our only online profile was in PDF form. Anyway, even though there might be a dated reference or two in here, I think it’s evergreen enough to post today. No pun intended, but I won’t disown it.
Happy Irish Christmas. Have fun today. Slainte’.
It’s almost St. Patrick’s Day again in the city of Boston. For the hundreds of thousands of out-of-towners living here, it’s the one day of the year they spend hanging out amongst the city’s Irish, acting like the city’s Irish, but mostly trying to figure out what in holy hell we’re all about. Well, I’m here to help.
The one thing that’s got to be the most surprising when you’re not from around here is just how Irish Boston is. No matter what godforsaken part of the country you’re from, you’ve seen “Good Will Hunting” and “The Departed,” you know about the Kennedys and seen the green hats in the stands at Red Sox games, so you knew there was, let’s call it, that “element” here. But there’s no way you could’ve realized the extent of the town’s Irishness.
And it’s not limited to the city. I live on the South Shore. One of the towns near me, Scituate, is part of an area affectionately known as “The Irish Riviera.” Last fall when I was headed to a Notre Dame game in South Bend, a Scituate guy I know told me when I got there to look in the Indianapolis phone book. He said there are exactly four Sullivans in Indy, the nation’s 12th-largest city. Scituate has 40. My point is, as long as you’re living here, you won’t be able to swing a dead cat without hitting an Irishman, so you might as well try to understand us.
You’ve seen the movies. You know that we’re supposed to be a bunch of colorful, working-class rogues who love to hang out in bars knocking back pints with our obnoxious buddies. And I could bitch about the stereotyping, but I won’t. Everyone I know loved “Good Will Hunting” because we all grew up with people exactly like the guys in the movie. Even with respect to Matt Damon’s math skills. Not that I know a ton of guys who can work the Fibonacci sequence, but I know plenty who can keep the pot straight in a 4 a.m. poker game with three guys drawing light. Shitfaced. Let’s see an MIT guy try that.
It’s horribly politically incorrect to say it, but almost every stereotype has some basis in truth. I don’t want to be responsible for a string of hate crimes. I don’t want anyone getting beaten up because someone read in Barstool that all Belgians drive slow or all Australians are good basketball players or all Tibetans are cheap or anything like that. But generally speaking, most of the Irishmen I know are very much like you think they are.
With one major exception: the St. Paddy’s Day parade. Sorry to disappoint, but in spite of what you’ll hear, we’re not all knee-walking drunk and puking in the storm drains. It’s a family event, period. Sure we’re drinking; that’s not Dr. Pepper we’ve got in those plastic cups. But every year over a million people line the parade route, there’s like one arrest, but The Boston Globe and the local TV news manage to make it sound like the parade scene from “Animal House.” This parade is my people marching for tolerance and acceptance. We’re here/ We have beer/ Get used to it.
I grew up in Weymouth, but I’m OFD. (If you have to ask what that means, you’re definitely not from around here.) There were 60 kids in my elementary school grade, and I think everyone of them was Irish Catholic. The most ethnic kid in my class was my buddy Roger, who was a WASP, something he labored mightily to explain to me. I remember asking, “Wait, so you don’t have CCD? You don’t go to St. Francis, you go to that little church near your house? What’s with that?”
You grow up Irish around here and you’re raised to understand the whole mythology of the Boston Irish. How your ancestors came to Massachusetts with less than nothing to escape the Potato Famine. The “Irish need not apply” signs. Everyone’s great grandfather who did some crap job that no one else would do. (In my case, it was my mom’s dad, who hauled dead bodies around for the Boston coroner’s office, which I imagine in the 1920s was slightly less glamorous than “CSI: Miami.”) How the Irish stuck together and gained political influence and started helping their own get government jobs. Good jobs, not just lugging corpses around. Then you heard the whole history of JFK and what it meant to your folks to have one of their own in the White House. (How’d that work out anyway? And you wonder why we’ve got a chip on our shoulders.)
That’s the Boston Irishman in a nutshell. Working class. Works hard. Plays hard. Someone who was taught to embrace his history. Who knows where he came from. Proud. Tough.Usually politically connected. And has zero tolerance for boring people and blue-blood snobs.
Of course, not all Harpies are alike. There are levels of Boston Irishness:
Light green: Irish in name only. This guy is originally from out of state. Now lives in the suburbs. A private-sector, white-collar guy who either works at one of the law firms or a financial institution. St. Patrick’s to him means breaking out the green tie and the shamrock flag for the front of the house. Also on St. Patty’s, his wife will dress the kids in green for school, though the school’s diversity policy celebrates every culture but the Irish.
Mint green: Me. Moved out of the city as a kid. Either has a government job or knows someone who does, especially cops. Likes a pint, but around the age of 30 developed a taste for Jameson’s. MP3 player is full of Dropkick Murphys and The Saw Doctors. Drinks in suburban places with neon shamrocks in the window. Hopes to visit the Auld Sod someday, but is saving for Disney. Might know someone who can get you off jury duty.
Hunter green: Family stayed in Dorchester. Thinks the South Shore is the Cape. Knows every Irish bar in the city. Isn’t happy this year’s St. Patrick’s Day falls on Saturday, because it’s a Suffolk County holiday and he’d normally have it off anyway. On St. Pat’s, “The Leprechaun” leaves gifts for his kids like he’s the Easter bunny. Has drank his way across Ireland several times.
Shamrock green: Lived in Southie since birth. If he’s not like one of the guys in “The Departed,” he sure knows guys like them. A huge hockey fan. Everyone he knows has a nickname like Sully, Cliffy, Knotzie or Fitz. Wears a Scally cap. Read “Black Mass” and knew everyone in it personally. Has a tattoo of a shamrock or a harp. Drinks Guinness.
Kelly green: Usually an older guy. Identifies locations by “parishes,” as in, “I grew up over in St. Marks.” Can meet you and within a minute connect you to someone he knows, usually a state worker. Never misses the obituaries (“the Irish sports pages”) and goes to three wakes a week.
Emerald green: This is the genuine article. A true Mick, who no matter how many generations removed he his, still has an Irish accent. Can find a rugby match on TV any hour of the day. Doesn’t say much because he’s so well connected. Puts salt in his beer to keep a head on it. Could probably have you arrested, whacked, or get you a job.
So happy St. Patrick’s Day. This should give you some idea of who you’re celebrating it with. How you like them apples?