-From Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep.
Somewhere around ten years old I got a sense what a stereotypical Irishman was, and I knew what I wanted to be when I grew up. I bet you conjure the same guy I did: a good story teller with a quick wit; a little garrulous, maybe, but never annoying; someone you want on your side when a fight breaks out; a pious man, but not one to take himself too seriously; a drinker, fun to be around, always quick to break into song or to tell one of those great stories.
Each one of those stereotypes has its negative side, and in the time of Irish Need Not Apply formed a basis of discrimination: an Irishman is a tiresome blowhard, a deadly brawler, and a superstitious Papist who’ll drink anything he can get his hands on. And yet even with the prejudices we Irish face, we got luck on our side. If someone who's never met me wants to assume I’ll bring a tad much to a party—hey, go right ahead.
Today, that kind of chest-filling pride is almost a relic of my childhood. Now, I’m proud to be an American, where at least I know I’m free. I no longer feel the urge to rep County Wicklow—which, after all, my O’Tooles left sometime in the 19th century. I know I’m not genuinely Irish (though don’t say Irish-American isn’t something distinct). I know that a stereotype’s just a stereotype, no matter how positive, and that people are the same everywhere.
And yet, when I spot that classic Irishman, the one I so desperately wanted to be as a kid, I feel an inexplicable, silly surge of pride. He’s one of my people, I think. He, like me, is an Irishman—and if I just try hard enough I’ll be that cool too.
-The great humor writer, Flann O’Brien who always drank while wearing with a black leather glove because he told his mother on her deathbed he’d never touch a drop of whiskey.
-The Irish immigrant here in Chicago who once convinced a naïve American woman that he’d never seen a mirror by running up to it and saying, “Me face! Oh my God, me face!” He was in his fifties.
-Mr. Casey’s dark wit in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man:
And when he had tried to open Mr. Casey’s hand to see if the purse of silver was hidden there, he had seen that the fingers could not be straightened out: and Mr. Casey had told him that he had got those three cramped fingers making a birthday present for Queen Victoria.
And there’s Rusty Regan, in The Big Sleep (mentioned in the epigraph above). At the start of the novel, a lonely old man named Sternwood tells Marlowe of his much younger and recently disappeared friend, Regan. “He was the breath of life to me—while it lasted. He spent hours with me, sweating like a pig, drinking brandy by the quart, and telling me stories of the Irish revolution.”
Marlowe is hired to find out who’s blackmailing Sternwood, but his focus soon turns to Regan. His investigation takes him to Captain Gregory of the Los Angeles Missing Person’s Bureau. Here’s Gregory’s take on the missing man:
So the first thing I thought is somebody rolls him… and rolls him too hard, so they take him out in the desert and plant him among the cactuses. But I don’t like that too well. Regan carried a gat and he had experience using it, and not just in a greasy-faced liquor mob. I understand he commanded a whole brigade in the Irish troubles back in 1922… A guy like that wouldn’t be white meat to a heister.
Marlowe asks for a photo.
He pushed a shiny print across the desk and I looked at an Irish face more reserved than brash. Not the face of a tough guy and not the face of a man who would be pushed around much by anybody… the face of a man who would move fast and play for keeps. I passed the print back. I would know that face, if I saw it.
The Italian kid who hangs an Irish flag in his dorm room is letting you know that he’s part Regan, and does not intend to be white meat to a heister.
McCormack and Richard Tauber are singing by the bed.
There's a glass of punch below your feet and an angel at your head.
There's devils on each side of you with bottles in their hands.
You need one more drop of poison and you'll dream of foreign lands.
It’s your own strange, private Golgotha. Two legendary tenors from the early days of recording lull you toward your death. There’s wine at the base of your cross, heaven above, and in the place of thieves a pair of booze-sodden demons. Off we go.
From there it moves at a dizzying, thrilling clip. You wind up in Germany, Spain, London, and back in Ireland. You piss your pants, get syphilis, fight in a hopeless war (for the good side) and vomit at Christmas mass. It’s a good time indeed, and you’re probably drunk for most of it. And man are you cool.
Frank Ryan bought you whiskey in a brothel in Madrid.
And you decked some fucking blackshirt who was cursing all the Yids.
Let’s break that down. The Irish Republican hero and international socialist Frank Ryan and you are main buds, and the two of you went to the same whorehouse while fighting in the Spanish Civil war where he bought you a drink. Some fascist (blackshirt) is being loudly anti-Semitic, so you, Friend of Zion, deck him. Sure, you use a term like “Yids” yourself, but who’s perfect?
Cuchulainn in Irish mythology is a sort of Achilles. A relentless, impervious bad ass. Your mid-20th century incarnation of him is too, albeit in a down-on-your luck way:
And in the Euston Tavern you screamed it was your shout,
But they wouldn't give you service so you kicked the windows out.
They took you out into the street and kicked you in the brains,
So you walked back in through a bolted door and did it all again.
In the end, you die. Yep, even you, the invincible Irish rebel who can’t be rejected, to whom a beating is meaningless. But you go out with style:
Then they'll take you to Cloughprior and shove you in the ground,
But you'll stick your head back out and shout ‘We'll have another round!’
Now, I’m not ten anymore. I know the Irish have no exclusive purchase on cool. Most the examples I gave of Irish swagger above are fictional, which says something. And as the very title of “The Sickbed of Cuchulainn” suggests, it’s about as close to realism as ancient mythology. When you die, you will not poke your head out of the grave to order a bunch of beers. Not even if your ancestors are from Connemara.
But when they shove me in the ground, I want my friends to sing that song aloud at the pub afterwards. I want them to blast it through the bar’s speakers over and over and over. I want my friends to sing until they’re hoarse. I want them to ‘scream it was their shout’ until, when another round arrives, they’ll believe that an invincible, recently-planted Irishman was the guy who ordered it.