Sheltered Islander: Happy Saint Patrick’s Day from Shelter Island!

Séamus O'Union's 8oz. whiskey ration kept him happy during the Civil War
Séamus O'Union's 8oz. whiskey ration kept him happy during the Civil War, Photo: Erin Wilkins, Hemera Technologies/iStock,

St. Patrick’s Day is upon us, a day that the Irish use as an excuse to drink—like we need an excuse—and the non-Irish celebrate with us for love of the fact that the Irish invented whiskey, which is Gaelic for “water of life.” Don’t believe me? Ask Danny O’Rattiner, the fine lad who created this weekly literary masterpiece that you find in your hands (or on your screen, as it were).

On St. Patrick’s Day, my family always watched the movie The Quiet Man. It was John Wayne and John Ford’s favorite movie. It’s the story of an Irish-born American who comes home to Ireland after he retires from boxing. He falls in love with Maureen O’Hara, at her redheaded best. Her brother objects to the marriage and the movie builds to a funny fight between the men. It ends when Maureen looks out her door to see them singing and staggering to the house. We never know who won the fight, and the characters are too drunk to tell us. For years my family thought it was a documentary.

Then, there’s the parade. The longest running parade in America. It’s required viewing for us. One year we were watching the parade when a guest asked, “don’t you get offended when people stereotype you, that you’re always drinking and fighting?” We were all confused, and my uncle finally said, “What stereotype?”

The huge influx of Irish immigrants in the mid 1800s collided with the American Civil War. Many Irish were conscripted right off the boat. They were offered citizenship for service. That’s when New York’s famous Fighting 69th all-Irish Brigade was formed. Before the discovery of DNA, it was believed that there were many separate races, each unique to itself. Ellis Island had a classification for Celts from Ireland and Scotland. It was believed that Celts needed to have some whiskey every day to smooth out their otherwise surly nature. During the Civil War, Celts were issued eight ounces of whiskey a day. It wasn’t a big deal, just accepted as common knowledge. General Hamlin said, “If they don’t git that whiskey, they’ll fight each other instead of Johnny Reb.”

People sometimes ask me where I get my sense of humor. From my crazy family. If my grandfather wanted someone to drive slow and safe, he’d say, “Now don’t be in such a g-damn hurry that you arrive before you get there.” My Uncle Walter once told me, “Tell you what, if I get there first, I’ll leave a pushpin by the front door, if you get there first, pull it out.” One of my brothers loves to say, “He’ll regret it to his dying day, if ever he lives that long…” These phrases are paradoxes, I call them Irish logic because in a strange way, they make perfect sense in a nonsensical kind of way.

When I couldn’t handle my crazy family anymore, I’d go to my friend Maria Bonfiglio’s house and we’d sit under her kitchen table and watch her crazy family. They were from Sicily. Her parents had fights you could hear four houses down. By age 12, I could curse in perfect Italian. As much as my family drank, her family feasted on delicious food made by Mama.

I’ll close by sharing one of my mother’s favorite jokes.

Two Irishmen are sitting in a bar (wow, what are the chances?). One says, “Sir, I recognize your brogue, are ye from County Sligo?”

“Indeed I am, sir. From St. Matthews Parish.”

“No, what a coincidence! Meself as well!”

“No! How remarkable. Now, I lived on Mill Street, do ye know where that is?”

“Sir, would ye be pullin’ my leg? We lived on Mill Street, in the corner house where Mill crosses Doyle Lane.”

“Not possible, sir, not possible. I grew up there and me family is there today…”

About this time, the bar owner who has been watching this exchange asks the bartender, “What’s with those two?”

The bartender replies, “Don’t worry about them, sir. They’re just the O’Malley twins, drunk again.”

Have a happy St. Patrick’s Day, and remember this tender Irish sentiment: I’d rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy.

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