Crossing Irish

As a child, I never wanted to be Irish. This was a convenient circumstance, since I wasn’t. (My Irish name is my husband’s gift to this Sicilian girl.)

IRELAND_Galway Bay_Angela & Brennan

Then I grew up and fell in love with poetry—English poetry first, then American poetry, and then, finally, fully, fatally, I fell in love with Irish poetry. The yearning of Yeats, the wicked wit of Kavanagh, the heart and heft of Heaney—all of them spoke to me, or rather, sang to me, in voices that were at once distinctly their own and also the collective voice of their common clan. It was then that I wanted in.

This itch to be Irish only got worse when I visited Ireland for the first time. Once our plane set down on Shannon’s tarmac (holy ground), once we got in our rental car and started driving across the glorious West of Ireland, I recognized the landscape as though it were my own. Irish poetry—with its deep rooting in the past, its mists of memory, its hard love of the hard land—had claimed me, planted in me the bizarre belief that I belonged to Ireland. I felt a sense of homecoming I’ve felt in only one other place in the world—Sicily, my true ancestral island from which my grandparents emigrated 100 years ago.

Though Ireland & Sicily might seem to have little in common—one ruled by rain, the other sun—they share much: a rich history of miraculous happenings; a penchant for saint-making; a fierce pride in their separateness, their exiled state; a wild & wonderful language that makes ordinary English and Italian sound strait-jacketed, tied-up, and tame.

As a child, I never wanted to be Irish. Now, as an adult, I do (oh, I do).

Happily, as a poet, I’ve found a way to claim this invented identity—or, at least, to imagine it—through poetry. The poem that follows belongs to a series called, “Crossing Irish,” a suite of poems I wrote five years ago during another visit to that Island of the Blessed. Since March belongs to the Irish, I’ll be publishing all 12 poems at Artists Without Walls along with photos chosen by AWOW editor, Charles Hale–one a day, in anticipation of the great Feast Day of St. Patrick. The first poem appears below, and the link to the whole series is posted at  the bottom of the page.

For all of you Irish readers out there, I hope this Italian-American wannabe’s work might not seem presumptuous. For all of you non-Irish readers who are also lovers of Ireland—well, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about.


Our Aer Lingus flies through Irish skies,
and I know I’m not at home
well before my feet touch the Tarmac.
Filing into Shannon, we take our places
in the long line of Irish ex-pats
whose cousins left as hopeful as they arrive.
Here I am clear extra, exotic
by Irish measure, if not New York’s,
my dark hair and olive hands a sign.
You don’t look Catholic, says the ex-priest
who left Queens and his cassock behind
for this spot at Hughes’ bar, An Spidéil.
Italian—or Jew—what’s the difference?
says the glint in his Irish eye.
Nothing of you begins here, where we do—
his American accent stronger than mine,
me with my traitorous poet’s ear
who loves all music better than my own.
At two weeks’ end, I’ll speak with a lilt,
the song of the Island sown in my dreams,
my foreign heart more native than she seems.

This essay and these poems were originally published at the Artist Without Walls Blog:


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2 Responses to Crossing Irish

  1. John A McCabe says:

    A Short Story © John Anthony McCabe

    As she walks on the sidewalk a sonata being performed in the choir loft comes measurably out of the church windows and doors. The Nino Roto in C major for the viola soars through the atmosphere its notes and phrasing dances off the gray stones of Stella Maris on South 10th Street. The instrument speaking slowly is never lost to her ears. She is drawn to her surroundings. In her cultural restraints, she bargains a sense of living in sophistication greater than South Philadelphia.
    On the way to early Mass her head is uncovered, because she shampoos in the mornings. She always lets her hair down for the walk, but at the foot of the church steps, she lifts a silk veil with both hands from behind her neck and wraps it to fit snugly over the crown of her long waves of very black hair. Her hair, compressed by the purple scarf is still fully revealed on her shoulders, and where it curls across her forehead. She often feels beautiful about the classically Roman features of her face. A face without makeup save a faintly rubbed lipstick and finger pinched cheeks. She walks a stride that accents her womanhood. Her Mediterranean complexion radiates a lovely olive sheen. Above her crimson lips the distinct line of her nose brings its dignified expression.
    Attendance at the Mass every Tuesday has been habitual because that is the day she has off from her work. Alexander is the Italian man she ignores and that pleases him immensely. If she were to smile or even look at him Alexander knows he would have to posture himself boldly in the excitement of her attention. He wears his best shirts on Tuesdays carful with the colors he selects. She is the reason he attends the Mass on Tuesday mornings. Alexander, when he is not totally distracted, uses the kneeling parts of the Mass to pray to God that she is conscious of him and that she is finally growing curious and maybe fond of him. He has named her Annabelle and his mother, Josephine knows of her by that name, as do five of his seven aunts. Of the two aunts who never heard of her one, Auntie Carmela died at birth and the other is mentally ill and never leaves the house, the kitchen to be exact. Annabelle whose real name is Patrizia also knows everything the aunts know because it’s the way it is with the Italians who when they say, “Don’t tell a soul,” are using that expression as a prelude to any widely told detailed news about anybody. Patrizia’s uncles know Alexander’s aunts and they have brought the news about Alexander talking about Annabelle to their family.
    Annabelle’s sandaled feet move without sound over the marble in which she is reflected. The sonata player breaks into music for the opening of the Mass and the Gloria. A thickly accented cantor sings the Latin. Patrizia has lit a candle and sits where Alexander cannot miss seeing her. All is ready in the church and the Priest begins. Tuesday mornings are all that is needed for the present to advance the path of the two, Annabelle and Alexander as if the entire world and its spin in the universe was an arrangement leading up to the instant when they will first willingly look upon each other deliberately for those mystical seconds of Italian wondrous, emotional energy. He will call her Annabelle for the rest of his life. It is a canonization.
    The priest says what will forgive all venial sins and the parishioners, all but the distracted Alexander, reply in Latin. The day has begun in its own grace. The Italians are ready to talk, to eat, to drink, to think in fired energies, to act impressed, to stretch and tell the truth, to tell everything, to be hateful, to be quiet but not still, not so impressed after all, but not so they don’t enjoy all that is to be enjoyed, to laugh and always to smile or frown even if only an act, most of all, to love.. They are the Italians. Annabelle goes to communion and on the way back to her pew she sees Alexander looking at her and she looks back. The parish violist plays when they are married and the two are made one for sixty four years living a block and a half from the same church doors in South Philadelphia.


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