My mother was born in County Galway, on the ruggedly-beautiful, wind-swept west coast of Ireland. She was a farmer’s daughter, but never much liked the farm. She left for London, then New York City, and finally settled in Boston to be near her brother and sister. I grew up with my immigrant mother and three sisters in Dorchester and South Boston in the 1970s, in neighborhoods filled with working-class Irish families like mine. My father was being treated for schizophrenia at a VA Hospital in Lowell, and had been sick since I was a baby. He would visit us maybe a half dozen times per year.
I was Irish-American, but didn’t really have much identification with the place of my mother’s birth, though her example helped. Like many immigrants, then and now, she cleaned other people’s houses and took care of other people’s kids for very little money. She worked with her hands but wanted her kids to work with their heads. When she cleaned downtown Boston offices at night, she’d steal pens and paper and bring them home so her only son could write bad poems and even worse essays. She’d read them patiently and then encourage him to keep going (he has). She told me that her grandmother had published short stories back in Ireland, and I could see how proud she was of this. She told me she’d be happy if I’d learn to write well, and I’ve spent my life trying (and often failing) to do just that.
My mother’s humor tended to be of the darker variety, and the harder things got, the more she laughed. She laughed a lot, about the orange color, rubber-like texture, and terrible taste of government cheese, and the different uses of powdered milk, and often had us all laughing too.
Growing up poor in 1970s Boston, I found myself right in the middle of the city’s era-defining busing crisis, being bused from my neighborhood in white Savin Hill to a school in the mostly African-American Columbia Point section of Dorchester. There was racism aplenty in Boston back then, including among Irish immigrant families like mine. Growing up, I witnessed school boycotts, riots, and saw school buses assaulted with rocks hurled by parents and students from Boston’s white and black neighborhoods. I rode those buses, heard the rocks pinging off windows, ducked my head to avoid the flying shards. Education was secondary to survival.
There were places you couldn’t go, people you shouldn’t talk to. The separation was geographic and also psychic. My mother encouraged me to stay out of trouble, to read and write, and words became an escape route I’d come to love. I’d grow up lost in books, and later become a professional book critic, lost in words and pages and the imagined places they took me.
When we moved from Dorchester to shamrock-clad South Boston, I began hearing a version of Irishness that I’d come to loathe. We were a tribe that stuck together and bled green. Being Irish somehow required us to defend Boston’s de facto apartheid, and to protect our own no matter what, even the criminals like mobster Whitey Bulger. “Irish Pride” was a mixture of tribalism, resistance to change, hatred of liberals like Senator Ted Kennedy and Judge Arthur Garrity, and barely-submerged racism. I wanted none of it, especially since I’d never felt the need to proclaim my Irishness. My mother always told me she hated the color green, and I came to understand why.
In high school, I began reading Irish literature and history. I’d come to identify with the Irish experience of struggling with limited resources, of suffering discrimination and colonial oppression, of being denied opportunity because of where you came from. I’d come to learn that the Irish experience with oppression was the African-American experience too, and the experience of countless immigrant groups.
Ireland is a post-colonial nation that has always suffered its share of famines, social injustice, violence, lack of economic opportunity, and systemic discrimination. My mother’s immigration was just a small part of Ireland’s tragic history, but there was also the redeeming, life-affirming quality of Ireland’s great literature and music, a rich culture that transcended the pain of loss. Words could be a balm, and there was honor in carrying the tradition forward, however haltingly, sharing one’s own experiences and discovering in the words of others that you are not alone. Books offered me community, solidarity with the wider world.
We were Boston-Irish and poor; we lived in public housing (Old Colony in South Boston); my father wasn’t part of our family because he was institutionalized with mental illness — throughout my childhood, he was the unspoken-about elephant in the room; oftentimes, my mother worked three jobs to keep food on the table. We didn’t talk about poverty or our mentally-ill father. We laughed, we listened to James Brown and danced in the living room, we ate macaroni and cheese from a white box, made with powdered milk. Meanwhile, I read the short stories of James Joyce and the poetry of Seamus Heaney, fleeing to a better place. Heaney wrote in “Digging” of watching his father digging for potatoes outside and the poet’s words dug deeper still, connecting this single vision to generations of fathers and sons across time. Here was a faith in the redemptive power of words; something my mother gave me.
But the deprivation my family experienced wasn’t just the Irish experience in Boston. It was shared across the city. Being Irish connected me to the African-American kids I went to public school with, despite the ways in which Boston’s Irish-American politicians tried to play “us” against “them.” I learned that my mind didn’t have to be segregated, even if Boston was. This became for me the ultimate expression of being Boston Irish, and I discovered it not in the hardscrabble, segregated streets of South Boston but in books that transported me mercifully through time and space to a saner place of acceptance. Words could offer escape, and though my mother herself had little free time to escape into books, she made this refuge possible for me. And just as words can re-make and re-imagine the world, they can save us too.