If you thought you detected a little skip in Jack Smiles’ step during the Pittston St. Patrick’s Day Parade, you’re right, you did.
Jack, who spent his life thinking he was predominately of Welsh ancestry, just had one of those DNA tests done only to discover he is actually three-quarters Irish. The pre-parade Guinnesses at The Red Mill never tasted better.
You can read all about Jack’s discovery on page P10.
Unlike Jack, I have always known I had plenty of Irish blood.
Well, not always.
I’ve told the story before about my kindergarten flub that apparently had all the teachers at the Barry School in Pittston Township in hysterics. My kindergarten teacher, whom I once misidentified as Mrs. Hopkins but was set straight by her daughter Ann Hopkins Simko that it was actually Mrs. Dessoye, took advantage of the St. Patrick’s Day holiday to go around the room asking the children “What are you?”
It’s been said Northeastern Pennsylvania is the only place in the land where if you ask someone “What are you?” they respond with a nationality. “I’m Irish” or “I’m Italian.” In other places people might respond “I’m a teacher” or “I’m a nurse” or even “What do you mean?” But not here.
So on that fateful day in kindergarten as my little classmates proudly kept announcing what they were, I sat there in a panic. I had no idea what I was. In my house I had never heard words like “Irish” or “Italian” or “German.”
One or two of the kids said they were “half and half” and I concluded that must be what I was too.
So, “Half and half” I pronounced when my turn came and figured that was that.
But Mrs. Dessoye threw me a curve. “Half what and half what?” she asked.
At first I was stumped. But I did know my family had just moved so I guess I figured there was only one answer. “Half up in Hughestown,” I responded, “and half down here.”
My memory is fuzzy but I seem to recall Mrs. Dessoye immediately leaving the room. Looking back I can only surmise she somehow stifled her laughter and then exploded when she go to the hallway. And then told all the other teachers.
News travels fast in a small town so my Mom already knew the whole story by the time I got home. And she’d already called my grandmother and most of my relatives. For years after my Uncle Eddie called me “ole half and half.”
Without an official DNA assessment, we Ackermans always said we were three-quarters German and one-quarter Irish (my mom’s maiden name was Strubeck but her mom was a Moran with roots in County Mayo and County Sligo), but we always skewed Irish, Uncle Eddie (like my mom, half Irish) in particular. We grew up knowing the perfect birthday or Christmas gift for him was anything green. If it had a Notre Dame logo, so much the better.
And after high school, I worked for more than 20 years at a newspaper that may have had more Irish staffers than the Dublin Times. I was knee-deep in Watsons and Cosgroves and Feeneys and Carmodys and Corcorans and O’Donnells.
I was also knee-deep in Irish wit.
The boss William A. Watson Jr., known to all by the nickname “Pidge,” who possessed a good dose of humility to balance his Irish pride, often told the following story, and even included it in his speech the night he was named Friendly Sons of St. Patrick Man of the Year.
“There’s a little village in Ireland,” he’d begin, “where every St. Patrick’s Day the most hen-pecked husband in the town must ride sitting backwards on a donkey down the main street.
“And every, single year,” he’d continue, “it’s the same guy. “Know why? Because Pidge Watson lives in America.”
Richard B. “Dick” Cosgrove, whose son Joe was once the famed Notre Dame University leprechaun, seemed to have an Irish saying for every day of the year.
Here’s one that comes to mind. It is often called an Irish blessing. Other times, an Irish curse.
May those who love us love us.
And those that don’t love us?
May God turn their hearts.
And if he doesn’t turn their hearts,
May he turn their ankles,
So we’ll know them by their limp.
Pidge and Dick are gone and I miss them dearly, especially at this time of year.
But James “Spot” O’Donnell, now in his 90s, is still with us. Spot is what I affectionately call a 365-day-a-year Irishman. He’s a resident of Wesley Village nursing home now but for years lived in a large mansion overlooking Harvey’s Lake. He called his property O’Donnell’s Donegal Hill. I know this because he once had me paint a large sign proclaiming it.
Spot was hosting a visitor from the Olde Sod one time and took him to a tavern at the lake where he was quite a hit with the ladies, especially one who just would not let him alone.
Spot knew the fellow was annoyed but admired how gentlemanly he handled the situation.
As the night wore on and the woman became more and more flirtatious, she brought up the legend of the famed Blarney Stone.
“Is it true,” she asked the Irishman, “that if you kiss the Blarney Stone you will have great luck?”
The real legend is that you will be given “the gift of gab,” but the Irishman simply responded, “Aye, it is true.”
“And is it true,” she persisted, “that if you kiss someone who kissed the Blarney Stone you also will have great luck?”
“Aye,” the Irishman answered, “that is true as well.”
Seizing what she believed to be the opportunity she’d hoped for, she finally asked, “And have you ever kissed the Blarney Stone?”
“Sadly no,” the Irishman said. “But I sat on it once.”
Ed Ackerman writes The Optimist every week. Look for his blogs online during the week at pittstonprogress.com.