An Irish brogue abroad

NY Post, Feb. 16th: He came down with a bad case of blarney. An American cancer patient developed an “uncontrollable” Irish accent in a possible neurological disorder triggered by his immune system.

I try to stay up with the news of the day. This opinion column vies with the Internet, morning shows, updates, all-day cable, a 6:30 network half-hour, local news/weather and, for informed citizens, a newspaper or two. My secret ingredient is perspective.

  N.B.  We’re on the threshold of St. Patrick’s Day! 

Building a vocabulary never ends. The good news is that it’s a resource we expand by looking up words in a book, cell phone, or iPad. I once won a “Flip Dictionary.” For when, “You know what you want to say, but can’t think of the word.” To writers and poets it eases tasks, like a mechanic’s toolbox. 

And, you learn something every day.

The Post’s “Blarney” headline made for a cheap laugh, and a dig at the Irish. Joe Biden frequently drops the charge of ‘malarky’ on his critics. I took the time to look up its meanings: balderdash, drivel, foolishness, hogwash, and nonsense. 

For years I’ve assumed blarney only meant BS. 

The NY Post story turned out to be a sad one knowing that the guy died from cancer.  FAS or Foreign Accent Syndrome is real. A woman was hit by a car, badly injured and in an induced coma. On awakening, her voice required a course in speech therapy. The end result was a New Zealand or Australian accent, take your pick. Both are, like Boston’s, hard on the ear compared to an Irish brogue.

Checking on my assumptions, I dug into the paper’s use of “blarney” as a pejorative. To my surprise, blarney is more in the way of a pickup line than a lie. An inborn gift of salespeople to: “butter, cajole, coax, exaggerate, flatter, soft soap and wheedle.” Heartless New Yorker’s can’t hear a love song at all, a-tall. In 1930, my 20-year-old father, James, came to Northampton from County Kerry. His lilting Irish brogue never left home. 

Jim met his wife Imogene at the Northampton State Hospital. “Jean” Smith was a secretary, he a lowly attendant. At first, Jim worked odd jobs, before renting a gas station in 1934. Jim’s immigrant friends supported his gas station and, in 1953, voted for him when he ran for office. Elected to be the city’s Tercentennial mayor, he was one of only two Irish-born mayors in the United States. Briefly famous, “Big Jim” never forgot his Celtic roots.

O the days of the Kerry dancing,

O the ring of the piper’s tune!

O for one of those hours if gladness,

Gone, Alas !like our youth, too soon

Fighting under the name, “Jim Callahan,.” he won the Western Mass. Golden Gloves title twice. Thus, Jim Callahan’s Service Station. His ready smile won friends who became customers. A seven-day work week was normal. A smiling Jim found nickels behind children’s ears.  

In 1939, our new house included a tiny gas station next door. After WWII, dad expanded to sell and service automobiles. His five boys became free help.. Our Yankee mom did the station’s books, making sure the six of us studied in addition to our gas station chores.

Dad’s Irishness was never far away. He told how St. Patrick used a three-leaf shamrock to explain the mystery of the Holy Trinity. On March 17th, we’d be taking our life in our hands if we dressed for school without a green tie or sweater. We honored St. Patrick, Ireland’s patron saint..

Dad’s jibe when we wanted stuff was, “Never go short in a land of plenty.” Thanks to him, we never did.

In 1947, dad’s widowed father came to live with us. Gramps played a squeezebox, singing folk songs like, “Sitting on the bridge below the town”

We’d go there every evening and till bedtime there we’d stop
Discussing all the news that’s going round;
Talking politics and horses and the weather and the crops 

Sittin’ on the bridge below the town.
Everyone joined in, singing the last line of all 20 verses.

Our home life featured parties in the kitchen. One resourceful mom cooked for six kids and dad’s last minute guests. A business telephone rang at home on nights and weekends. I remember, bedlam on wheels.

Mom was recruited from her life on a Sharon Vermont farm to study at Northampton Commercial College. Jean paid her tuition by babysitting for the Pickett family, who owned the school.

Mayor Jim became a popular speaker. His closing lines spoke to his life and strong faith:

May you live as long as you want

May you never want as long as you live

And, may your soul be in heaven

24-hours before the devil knows you’re dead

Every year he donned a grey top hat to march in the Holyoke St. Patrick’s Day parade, savoring shouts of “Hi, Mayor Jim,” long after he left office.

“Mom! Where’s my green sweater?”

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