As a child, I disliked St. Patrick’s Day. “Don’t be so contrary,” my father admonished me, perhaps forgetting that contrariness was part of the Irish compact. Even at an early age, I sensed a primordial sadness amid the green-tinted frivolity. During adolescence, when my stubborn non-observance transitioned to cultural pride, the melancholy lingered.
This ache would arise each March 17 on family rides to out-of-town festivities or to my grandmother’s house in Hazleton, where our Irish Catholic heritage had germinated. On those trips—typically bound north on Route 81, the Corrs or Cranberries or some rebel song playing in the background—my father gave an oral history lesson, often dating to our ancestors’ famine-era arrival in the anthracite coal region. By adulthood, I had logged enough car rides and feast days to realize these solemnities were part of being Irish.
To Irish Catholics endowed with the emotional DNA, St. Patrick’s Day isn’t a time for excessive green beer. Alcohol can perhaps numb melancholy, but it cannot extinguish homesickness as the mind ventures to reels and soundbites of the past. There’s a sense of the ephemeral. The elderly relative was once an exuberant child. The grandmother was here and now is gone. Parishioners filled the church instead of the cemetery. A neighborhood had teemed with characters—armed with grudges, left-handed compliments, witty rejoinders—who had moved, passed on, or just faded away. Pete Hamill’s writing on New York nostalgia also applies here: “It involves an almost fatalistic acceptance of the permanent presence of loss. Nothing will ever stay the same.” Or as one Irish Times columnist described the Portuguese word “saudade,” a term for melancholic longing, there’s “the presence of absence; a longing for someone or something that you know you can never experience again.”
And yet, what is irretrievable can also engender comfort. It’s the paradoxical nature of Irish melancholy: the joy of being sad. On St. Patrick’s Day, whether on those car rides, seated at a pub, or in my grandmother’s kitchen, my father delighted in imparting his vivid memories. My mother and two brothers never grew tired of his reminiscences. They spanned from the historical—something on, say, James Tate, Philadelphia’s first Irish Catholic mayor—to the familial: my brothers and I were sixth-generation, 100 percent Irish. His great-grandfather, my father reminded us, started life as a schoolteacher in Ireland and ended his days as a miner outside Hazleton. His grandfather, who entered the mines as a second grader, lived long and watched New York’s St. Patrick’s Day parade on the family television. And his own father, who embraced civic life after combat in World War II, delivered shamrocks to close friends and attended the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick dinner.
During my formative years, St. Patrick’s Day remained an annual production. My parents pulled us early from school, Irish pins affixed to our Catholic school uniforms. At my grandmother’s house, my father reminded us of our local heritage: a story of change and loss. Our ancestors, like their neighbors in Hazleton’s South Side neighborhood, had arrived in the 1840s from County Donegal, then an isolated region of beauty and poverty. These Gaelic speakers left an agrarian existence for a mining life underground. They formed St. Gabriel’s—a miniature cathedral modeled on St. Patrick’s in Manhattan and founded by John Neumann, a canonized saint—and turned Donegal Hill from shanties in the wilderness into a vibrant city neighborhood. It was a colorful place, my father told us, noting local lore that Jimmy Walker, New York’s legendary Prohibition-era mayor, once visited the Winfield Hotel: “Something right out of The Sting,” as his father told him.
But as with any city neighborhood, change is inescapable. During World War II, young men fresh out of St. Gabriel’s school shipped out to fight abroad. Combat veterans like my grandfather, grateful to make it back home, found contentment within Hazleton’s six-square-mile grid. Many other Irish Catholic veterans enrolled in the G.I. Bill and left town, just as the mining industry collapsed. By the sixties, city leaders targeted the South Side for urban redevelopment, and like most renewal projects of that time, the outcome was disastrous: sixteen-square blocks were razed, and the Irish cultural footprint was almost erased. The blocks around St. Gabriel’s were spared. Among the survivors was my grandmother’s Craftsman, where my father recounted these stories.
At the time, my grandmother was the oldest resident of her South Laurel Street block, by then an eclectic neighborhood that included Romanian immigrants, a French-Canadian couple, and a young Peruvian mother and her three boys. By the late 2000s, not long after my grandmother’s death, Spanish had become the prevailing language. Since 2019, the neighborhood’s oldest Irish pub closed (after 159 years) and then the Irish funeral home (after 137 years). Today’s South Side is home to Dominican-Americans and Dominican immigrants, residents who have created their own traditions in the old neighborhood. At St. Gabriel’s, its French Gothic edifice appearing to withstand time, a frosted etching of St. Patrick on the choir loft door is the final mark of the South Side’s cultural past.
But on this St. Patrick’s Day, the first one without my father, I’m thinking of the South Side house where I was first captivated by his stories and impressions. My mind ventures beyond the living and dining rooms, past the Sacred Heart and the Infant of Prague, to the kitchen table, where we’re gathered eating Senape’s tavern pizza. My father is recounting St. Patrick’s Days of the past, when he’d see the Irish Lads play rebel songs in St. Gabriel’s basement or head to a packed Shenanigans bar, where he met my mother. My father clarifies maiden names and family lore with my grandmother, who talks at length about her own childhood memories. “A Nation Once Again” plays from a CD player, and my youngest brother, barely past toddlerhood, sings along. “Remember these stories,” I hear my father saying. This St. Patrick’s Day, a doubtless quieter occasion, I have learned the true meaning of Irish melancholy.
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