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These days, the Miramichi Irish Festival in New Brunswick is recognized as an international cultural event: Being Miramichi Irish is definitely something to celebrate.
But I can remember when it wasn’t, when St. Patrick’s Day at our house was, for all of us except one, an ordeal to be stoically endured. And it was all because of my Irish granddaddy.
Every March 17, directly after supper, my maternal grandfather did a shameful (judging from the behaviour of other family members) thing. He would closet himself in the den with his ancient record player and start blasting Clancy Lowered the Boom, Did Your Mother Come From Ireland? and some song about his mother wearing orange and his father wearing green (or visa versa).
The rest of the family, especially my proud Scottish grandmother, would be tense and unhappy, huddled in the kitchen fervently hoping and praying that none of the neighbours would decide to visit until granddaddy’s annual ritual to his roots had subsided.
As a child I was part of the kitchen group. I didn’t understand, but with a youngster’s trust in the opinions and behaviours of adults, I shared their chagrin.
Early in the evening, between tunes, Granddaddy would begin making trips through the silent, judgmental group in the kitchen on his way to feed the chickens that lived in a coop attached to the woodshed.
One St. Patrick’s Day, I decided to accompany him. I loved to sprinkle the grain and watch the big Rhode Island Reds scuttle to peck it up, clucking contentedly.
“Come along, my darlin’,” Granddaddy said, Irish brogue tripping from his tongue in honour of the Day. “They’ll be glad to see you.”
Ignoring as best I could Nanna’s icy stare of disapproval and my aunts’ and uncles’ stony silence, I pulled on my jacket and skipped along by his side. In the woodshed, Granddaddy snapped on a light, then picked up the tin dipper he used to scoop feed out of a 50-pound jute sack. As he filled it for me, I heard the pot clink against something in the grain.
“Granddaddy, you’ve found the prize!” I cried. A connoisseur of Cracker Jacks and Rice Krispies, I knew all about amazing finds in foodstuffs.
“Do ya think so?” He handed me the half-full dipper and wriggled his fingers into the dusty seeds. “By George, you’re right!”
He pulled out a flask and held it up to the light. “And a handsome one it is, at that,” he continued, turning the quart of Irish whisky in his hands as if it were the first time he had seen it. “We’ll just keep this our little secret, won’t we, darlin’?”
I nodded. I understood. I had often hidden secret decoder rings and the like from envious friends.
“Now, you’d best feed those poor chickens. They’ve heard us comin’ and will be kickin’ up a racket any minute if you don’t.”
When I came back into the shed, I found Granddaddy tightening the cap on his prize. I guessed he didn’t want any of it to spill.
During the rest of the evening, as the tunes gradually slid from Who Threw the Overalls in Mrs. Murphy’s Chowder? to When Irish Eyes Are Smiling, he made more and more trips to feed the hens, and gently refused my help.
“It’s getting’ too cold, my darlin’,” he said. “You’d best stay inside where it’s warm.”
Each time he returned he was a little happier, if a little less certain of the shortest distance across the room.
One St. Patrick’s Day when I was about 8, my curiosity overwhelmed me. What exactly was the shameful thing my grandfather did in the den? I stole a peek through the keyhole. What I saw took my breath away.
My grandfather was step dancing! His shabby slippers tripped so lightly over the threadbare linoleum, they seemed possessed of a life of their own. The music appeared to have permeated his entire body, all the way to his flying feet. His face was bright with happiness. Was this what being Irish meant, I wondered, awe-struck? Was it something so powerful it could carry the joy in your heart to the tips of your toes?
“Come away from there!” My grandmother was appalled when she saw what I was doing. I had never heard her so angry. Hurt and embarrassed, I obeyed.
The evening always ended the same way. After my aunts, uncles and I went up to bed, my grandmother would sit alone at the kitchen table waiting for Granddaddy’s Irish seizure to subside. The tunes would have slid to the sentimental Galway Bay and The Rose of Allendale.
On another St. Patrick’s Day, when I was nearing 12, I lay awake until I heard the record player stop and my grandparents coming slowly upstairs together. My grandfather was singing softly, I’ll Take You Home Again, Kathleen.
Peeking out through the crack in the doorway, I saw them pause at the top of the stairs. His arm about Nanna’s shoulders, he was endeavouring to hit an especially high note.
Nanna tied to shush him, but all she got for her trouble was to be pulled close and soundly kissed.
And when they turned to go into their room, the expression on my Scottish grandmother’s face told me she really didn’t regret marrying an Irishman – at least not as long as no one else knew how much she was enjoying it.
Gail MacMillan lives in Bathurst, N.B., and Tabusintac, N.B.