An Irish Tall Tale
St. Patrick's Day Richmond, VA
When I was a boy my father would take me to my grandmother's house for Sunday dinner. Now dinner was an early affair in my Irish family as it had been for generations. I was a picky eater, at times, and had a tendency to push my plate away when one of my grandmother's recipes didn't appeal to me. During one particular dinner, when I was about eight, I remember pushing one of my grandmother's stews away - she harshly looked at me and said in her still extant Irish brogue ' let me tell you a little story about your great-grandfather'.
My grandmothers father Francis Kilmartin was a large strong man directly off the boat from Ireland. It was the late 1800's and he settled into, what was then, an area of Irish immigrants in North Bergen, New Jersey. My grandmother continued , 'we were very poor, living in a crowded tenement with spotty heat and sanitation. We scrapped by with odd jobs Francis was able to find. My mother trying to make ends meet while feeding a growing family'.
She paused and a look of contemplation grew over her face- while she said in a lower tone, 'my father was a man who liked his drink and was quick with a temper. When he didn't like a meal my mother put in front of him, for any reason, he would take the plate and hurl it against the wall. The last time he did this was a St. Patrick's day dinner when I was about your age - after which he got up and said 'I am going down to the pub - don't wait up''.
He went to the pub and while having a pint a short man in a bowler hat and green tie sat next to him. 'Francis' he said. ' I hear you have been in a bad sort lately - temper getting the best of you'. Francis looked at him and said, ' excuse me but do I know you?' 'No' the little man said, 'but I know you and have seen what you put your wife through'. Now Francis was not one to think before he acted and took a swing at the little man - he thought he had hit him square on the jaw but his fist seemed to go straight through him. The momentum of Francis' swing propelled him out of his bar stool and onto the floor. Over a few laughs from the small crowd at the bar, Francis looked up and saw the small man leaving the front door into a mist that developed on the street. Francis got up, dusted himself off and scampered after the little man. It couldn't have been more than a few seconds but when Francis got to the door he saw the shadow of the little man halfway up the street.
Now Francis had had a few drinks and wasn't too fast on his feet but when he caught up to the spot where the little man had been he found himself at the entrance to the old Irish cemetery of North Bergen -located on a hill overlooking the tenements and the Hudson River below. The little man had disappeared. 'Bloody Hell' he said 'he lost me'.
My grandmother took a sip of her tea and by this time I was mesmerized - 'what happened' I said. 'Well he took a shortcut through the cemetery and toward an old gnarled tree - all the while hearing what he thought was the wind lowly calling his name - Francis...Francis... when he got to the tree a loud FRANCIS rang out. With this he turned quickly and lost his footing, landing on his back and hitting his head on a rock. He awoke to what looked like small green lights floating around him, poking him and laughing. One of the lights grabbed his chin with what felt like a hand made out of energy, twisting his face towards the tree. In the mist around the tree he saw a scene in the tenement - his family, my great-grandmother making a dinner she had scrapped together from all they could afford. At the table Francis saw himself take the plate of food and hurl it, but instead of striking the wall it flew through an open window. The plate sailed three stories down to the street below striking a policeman, wounding him or killing him - he wasn't sure. In the next instance Francis was being dragged to court, convicted, sentenced and sent off to a hard labor camp. His family, in the next scene, not being able to pay their bills were brought to the debtors prison.
Francis came home that night and from that time forward, while he would have his pint, he would never push or toss his plate again. Now my grandmother said -with a slight smile on her face 'I love you dearly but I want you to sit down and eat your 'blankity' stew!'
Grandmother had told me years later that, ' Francis would go to the spot of his vision every St. Patrick's day and pour a pint of ale on that very spot. Even after he had passed I would go up that way and the grass was always three shades greener - I would also sometimes see fireflies around that old tree or were they tiny green leprechaun faces?'
St. Patrick's Day Fair
My great-grandfather would have loved the Richmond, Virginia Irish fair. Celebrated for 27 years and counting. It takes place in an area called Church Hill located around old St. Johns church. The place where Patrick Henry gave his 'Give me Liberty or Give me Death speech' and where Benedict Arnold and his troops bivouacked during the Revolutionary War.
Small pubs abound such as Patrick Henry Pub and Poe's Pub (Poe having spent his late childhood years in Richmond).
Street musicians and Irish dancers performed. And even though it was raining - a large crowd took advantage of the street vendors hawking their wares and food.
An Irish cop I was talking to told me' I volunteer for this assignment - I am going to be here anyway I might as well get paid for it'. He also told me 'there is a two drink limit each time you go to the beer truck - but you can go back as often as you like'.
The pictures at right show the festivities!