It did not occur every day, but it did that day. As I turned the side door, next to the milk door, I could already hear them stewing. Aunt Irene got a deal on some hamburger patties, better than the price for the ground beef, and was breaking the burgers back down.
My Uncle took offense. Not direct personal offense, but offense for the maker of the burger patties. “You know that is someone’s job, their profession, something they take pride in?” Aunt Irene did not take pause in her deconstruction of what was once a cow, for the record.
This was a familiar position for him. He was a laborer and embraced the fact that history would not remember his name. My Uncle took pride in what he helped build.
If we passed a house or building he worked on, we were told the story of when he was there, what he did, who he worked with and everything that went wrong. Folks in that line of work, back then and today, always have to deal with something going wrong.
As things passed irreconcilable and continued to increase in velocity, My Uncle declared he was going to the bar to cool off. He didn’t read much; what he did, he put to use. He had read a dated The Saturday Review article on de-escalation while getting new tires on the Buick that week.
Off he went and Aunt Irene attempted to explain to me that she had meant no offense. I asked her if she had established that fact. She had not. The beauty of “no offense” is that you can then say anything you want, but you have to establish it first or your words may be offensive. If it was only that easy.
These days, I make my Irish Stew with Guinness and without meat. That should not matter because it is the carrots that make a stew, or at least the mirepoix. My Aunt and My Uncle would not agree but that is how I start the stew, which is justified in etymology.
“Stew” is from estuve in the Old French, meaning stove or heated room. In the 1300s it was used as a term for a bathhouse, and soon thereafter it referred to brothels. Before it was Irish stew, it was “stewed” in reference to being drunk.
That is where My Uncle was headed when I arrived at the local to retrieve him. He was laughing with his crew until he saw me; I had seen him first, like no offense. A faux pas cannot be redeemed with carrots.
This was his scheme all along. St. Patrick missed that snake in the grass. He attempted to recover his thespianic beef displeasure to no avail; the jig was up. The overture of whiskey was not going to succeed in making this a double jig.
When we got back to the house, everything was in some state of stew, except the ground beef. That was now Shepherd’s Pie, and a nice way for me to wash down the whiskey. In the end, Aunt Irene was more perturbed at being fooled than anything else.
History is like stew, changing over time in meaning and usage. Diachronic is a term I taught my students, although I try to avail myself of parsimonious nomenclature.
Each Saturday that the Hibernians volunteer at St. Philomena’s, I wrestle with the whole changing aspect of history. The school there needs work, a lot of work, despite that amazing brick work alludes to a different time.
The Rectory needs work, a lot of work. The ceilings are damaged due to the roof repair not being timely, carpets need to be removed, paint needs to be painted. The Church needs work, but not as much work as the other buildings, so comparatively it is in good shape.
The interior of the Church is still awe-inspiring and teases those who attend Mass with a glimpse of the past. A panoramic photo is near the door to the parking lot, saving for history the parishioners from almost 100 years ago.
We happened upon a similar photo of the “Statue Blessing” from June 8th, 1947, with the students, clergy and some of the families in the front of the Church. There is not a single name listed on that photo.
Like the houses and buildings My Uncle helped build, he had no photos and I have a vague memory of some of them. The “Statue Blessing” was unframed and affixed to the wall with safety pins. It was; it is now getting protected with a proper frame. A gesture to the past, far from the veneration of those who came before us.
Yet, therein lies the rub. It is not 1947 and history has kept moving, as it always does. However, for some it is not that cut and dried.
Those bricks do speak to some and cry to others to be restored to what they once were, part of a vibrant parish in East Cleveland and a part of one holy and apostolic faith. Now those bricks are in a city many who read this will not travel through, perhaps not even metaphysically in this attempt at romanticized nostalgia.
Hibernians will still hold an annual Mass at St. Philomena’s, just as we have Masses at the Immaculate Conception, St. Aloysius and the Cathedral. These will be some of the stops on the Cleveland Irish Heritage Trail, once we get that going. One Mass a year is another gesture to the past; a start but not enough to be considered veneration.
I think of My Uncle sharing with pride the unwritten stories of the houses and buildings he helped construct. A history for all those whose names history has forgotten. Those students in 1947 are not named in the photo, but census data tells us they were mostly Irish. How could one pull an Irish goodbye on our history? On a parish our brethren built? I would like to buy a ham-burger, for My Uncle.
*Francis McGarry holds undergraduate degrees from Indiana University in Anthropology, Education and History and a Masters in Social Science from the University of Chicago. He is the Executive Director of Bluestone Hibernian Charities and proprietor of McGarry Consulting. Francis is the founder and a past president of the Bluestone Division of the Ancient Order of Hibernians and a past president of the Irish American Club East Side.