A son, his dad, and a lifetime love of all things Irish.
I grew up in a section of Brooklyn that was populated mostly by Irish and Italian families.
Because everyone related strongly to their heritage, there were an equal number of Irish and Italian priests in our parish, and even more importantly, there was one pizzeria for every Irish pub.
After they filmed Saturday Night Fever in our neighborhood, the Italians suddenly thought that John Travolta and his disco-loving pals had shifted the balance of power in their favor. However, everything remained in perfect balance, and thankfully, disco eventually died.
Of course, our ancestral pride was no more evident than in the month of March. Everyone knows that St. Patrick’s Day is on March 17th, and on that day, the Irish proudly celebrated their heritage. We wore green (and you got pinched if you didn’t), the Nuns looked the other way when we added a “Kiss Me I’m Irish” pin or a shamrock to our Catholic school uniforms, and it seemed like all of Brooklyn feasted on corned beef and cabbage.
Few people realize that March 19th is St. Joseph’s Day, and that feast belonged to the Italians. They all wore red, the Nuns looked the other way when they added Italian flag pins to their Catholic school uniforms, and it seemed like all of Brooklyn ate spaghetti and meatballs for dinner.
I took great pride in the fact that I was Irish. Even though I have an English surname (there is English and German mixed in with the Irish blood that dominates my veins), my mother’s maiden name was severely Irish. Since she died when I was three, I think I really latched onto her Emerald Isle past to help me feel close to her in her absence.
I might have been named after my Dad, but I definitely followed in my Mom’s Irish footsteps.
All things Irish appealed to me. I decided at an early age that green was going to be my favorite color. I took to picking the little shamrocks that grew on our front lawn and lining them up on my windowsill for luck. I chased rainbows in hopes of discovering Leprechauns, even though I knew it was highly unlikely that any of them lived in Brooklyn. And from fifth grade through high school, I had a massive crush on Cathy Fitzpatrick. You can’t get more Irish than a name like that.
Unfortunately, because no one ever took the time to talk to me about the birds and the bees , I never did get around to having the Irish girlfriend of my dreams.
However, my first kiss was with a fine Irish lass named Tara Flynn.
Even though my Dad wasn’t as Irish as my Mom, he still had some of the Blarney in him, and I desperately wanted to share my fascination with being Irish with the man who was my hero.
As the Luck of the Irish would have it, he had the perfect way for us to bond. My father was a devout follower of Notre Dame Football. He did not go to college in South Bend, but he considered himself to be a subway alumnus, a term that especially appealed to this Brooklyn Boy.
The Fighting Irish of Notre Dame were perennial favorites to win the National Championship on the gridiron. We were both huge football fans, but we were on different sides of the field when it came to the New York teams. Big Austin cheered for the Giants, while Little Austin foolishly rooted for the sad sack Jets.
We might have disagreed on Sundays, but every Saturday, we bonded as we would cheer, cheer for old Notre Dame. Yes, I knew the Notre Dame Fight Song by heart at a very early age. Yes, I would try to emulate the Notre Dame Leprechaun by attempting to match him push up for push up after every Fighting Irish touchdown. Yes, I would watch every game decked out in as much Notre Dame gear as humanly possible.
Most of my friends were heavily into sports, but none of them rooted for Notre Dame. That was my thing that I shared with my Dad and nobody else, which made it even more special.
I can still remember how infuriated I was when my stepmother insisted we go out to dinner (at an Italian restaurant no less!) on January 2, 1978. That dinner caused us to miss most of the Cotton Bowl, which was one of the greatest games Notre Dame has played in my lifetime. They beat the #1 ranked, and previously undefeated, Texas Longhorns to win the National Championship.
My Dad and I celebrated, while the rest of the neighborhood slept off their New Year’s celebrations. The Fighting Irish were number one, which gave me bragging rights over all my Italian friends.
Notre Dame would not win another National Championship until 1988. By that time, I was off at NYU and my Dad had moved to Virginia. We still talked about every game of that amazing undefeated season, though, which was even more memorable for me because he was dying of cancer.
How fitting was it that the Fighting Irish would come through for us one last time? Was it the Luck of the Irish? Was St. Patrick himself smiling down on us to make sure I had this happy memory in what was otherwise one of the saddest years of my life?
I continue to be a rabid fan of the Fighting Irish, only now, I watch every game with enough fervor for two men named Austin. My Irish heritage is still very important to me, and I make sure to wear the green every Saturday to cheer on the boys from South Bend.
Just like I did with my Dad.
Now, I’m in love with a sweet, beautiful, kind-hearted Irish woman. She was born on the Emerald Isle and lives in Dublin. Every time I hear her tantalizing accent, or her sweet Irish eyes smile upon me, I wish that my Dad were still alive to see that my love of all things Irish had paid off handsomely.
Happy St. Patrick’s Day!
Photo: Maeka Alexis/Flickr