Jim Cahillane: The Irish sports pages
WILLIAMSBURG — An Irishman’s attitude toward death can be, often is, humorous to him even if it might be disconcerting to others. What may upset many is his casual approach to the end of life, what is now called the aging process.
The late, great British actor James Mason related his encounter with an Irishman on a Dublin street, who asked: “Pardon me sir, but would you be Mister James Mason in his later years?”
My move to Burgy 18 years ago, plus a recent big birthday, puts me in line for the actor’s “aren’t you” query every time I come to Hamp.
In his later years, my Irish dad developed the morbid habit of calling me most mornings to tell me who died. Up early, he scanned the obituary page before the rest of the news. Wits call them “the Irish sports pages.” Now that I’ve reached a similar time in life, I confess that I too check them out in hopes that I’m not yet there.
When I find a mutual acquaintance I resist calling my kids until later in the day, or send them an email. I fondly recall Bill O’Connor, Northampton’s Irish toastmaster, who, passing Holyoke’s St. Jerome’s Cemetery, would mention it as “my forwarding address.”
Holyoke’s great St. Patrick’s Day parade falls on Sunday, preceded Friday by the annual breakfast. I had the honor of speaking there two years ago, which is pretty much the high point of any local Irishman’s life. The challenge is to get the Clarion’s audience to laugh with you, not at you. I resurrected a few of my dad’s old reliable jokes and survived the morning.
As mayor, he attended a lot of Irish wakes. If you think winning a Hollywood Oscar for makeup is tough you should have heard dad’s critique of many a poor undertaker’s lifelike efforts: “God, didn’t so-and-so do an awful job on Maurice?” In Ireland, a wake could run a good few days with food and booze on offer. Dad liked to relate the tale of a scrounger who received a request from the daughter of someone newly deceased. “You must have been a great friend of my dad,” she said, “would you act as his pallbearer?”
“Ach,” said the faker. “Why not stuff him and let the party go on!” I suspect the joke is in the delivery.
Not a whole lot changed when the whole shebang moved over here to the new country. The late Dave Powers’ family just sold off a room full of JFK memorabilia from the early years when Powers befriended candidate Jack by taking him into Boston’s Irish three-decker houses. Powers became a presidential aide and his family’s auction netted two million bucks, which proves that politics pays off in the end.
I like the three-decker story of a group of well-imbibed Irishmen noisily arriving after the bars had closed and carrying a heavy bundle. One went ahead banging on doors.
At each level he loudly inquired if this was the home of the widow Murphy? Finally, a very angry woman opened her door saying, “I’m Mrs. Murphy but I’m no widow.”
“Wait,” replied the drunk, “till you see what we’re bringing up the stairs.”
Bill O’Connor had a ready laugh which made all of his jokes funnier as you awaited the crucial line. His repeated election as Hampshire County treasurer gave Bill the opportunity to spread Celtic laughter wide and far.
Political situations lend themselves to humor as ambitious pols show up in the unlikeliest of places, invited or not. Before my dad was mayor he joined the city’s dour mayor Drewsen and a group of city councilors at an official ceremony. A photographer rushed up to the group and asked them to point out the mayor in the crowd.
Alderman Cappy Lyons told him to “look for a guy who’d appeared to have just smelled a disagreeable odor, that’s our mayor.”
Irish humor often resides in removing air from the inflated. If the wisecrack also benefits from a smidgen of truth, so much the better.
I admit that I prefer a witty comment or retort to a thoughtful joke with a defined premise followed by a punch line. President Kennedy’s press conferences gained him admiration because he could think on his feet.
When a reporter told him that the Republican National Committee had adopted a resolution saying that Kennedy was pretty much a failure, he replied: “I assume it passed unanimously.” That was 50 years ago; so don’t feel bad when today’s GOP falsely professes that Obama is a failure.
Some enemies never change.
Bill O’Connor’s closing line was always the same: “Live every day as if it were your last, and one of these days, you’ll be right!” God rest Bill O’Connor, and Happy St. Patrick’s Day to all.
Williamsburg writer Jim Cahillane is a Northampton native and a member of the Northampton St. Patrick’s Association.