The Local Lens
Published• Wed, Jun 19, 2013
By Thom Nickels
A couple of weeks ago, I headed over to Port Richmond Books on Richmond Street to hear Marita Krivda Poxon talk about her book, Irish Philadelphia. As usual, proprietor and event MC Greg Gillespie orchestrated a memorable event. Who else but Greg Gillespie would arrange boxes of Philly soft pretzels and iced beer and wine for attendees? I’m afraid the answer to that is nobody, that’s who!
I met Poxon a couple weeks before when PR Books hosted my own reading and signing. Such as it is, writers often find it hard to attend each other’s events, but I couldn’t help but be interested in Poxon’s talk, being half Irish on my mother’s side. And yes, nearly everyone attending Poxon’s reading was Irish.
I met the Rev. John P. McNamee, Pastor Emeritus of Saint Malachy church in North Philadelphia. Father McNamee, in case you don’t know, wrote the book Diary of a City Priest, which won the Catholic Press Association Book Award. The book was made into a movie for HBO. Father McNamee is also a distinguished poet; his published works include Clay Vessels and Endurance—The Rhythm of Faith.
By the time I left Poxon’s reading, there was nothing but Irish facts and figures dancing in my head.
Being Irish gets a lot of play in this society. Sometimes when I board Route 15 at Front and Girard I see guys walk through the buses there and ask passengers if anybody is Irish. Two weekends ago a man boarded the bus and shouted "Irish pride" to ten or more waiting passengers as the shuttle bus idled for 30 minutes or more. "What’s going on?" I said to a friend. "St. Patrick’s Day is long past."
I am German on my father’s side. Growing up, the German side of our heritage got little play while the Irish side was constantly being honored. There’s no comparison between Irish hype (pride) and German hype. People of German descent get far less fanfare. People don’t walk into buses in this town and ask who the Germans are, and you never see German Pride tattoos or the words German Pride emblazoned on porch awnings. That must be because the Germans, generally speaking, are a more subdued people.
Because I am half German I can say this with some authority. My father’s family is from Dusseldorf (where they were burgermeisters) by the Rhine River. They came to America in the 1840s. One of them, Mathias Nickels, enlisted in the Union Army during the Civil War but had to bow out because of an unspecified illness. He died in an Old Soldier’s Home in Ohio.
Growing up, my mother, whose family hailed from Tyrone County in Northern Ireland (but Catholic), found a lot of fault with my father’s German side. "I love your father, but his people hold everything inside," she said to me on many occasions, meaning that they were too interior, too cerebral, and too cold. I’d hear the words "cold fish" from her when referring to certain German uncles. As a kid I didn’t understand these things. "Can’t they get their words and feelings out?" I asked Mom scores of times. The truth is, I identified more with the Germans than with the Irish half. To me, the more "controlled" (German) way of expressing emotion fit my personality.
Poxon’s talk reminded of my mother’s clan in Sharon Hill and Lansdowne, the Muldoon and Kelly families, who migrated during the famine and went to California as gold prospectors, then to Michigan, and finally, Pennsylvania. The Irish in those days tended to have a lot of children. My mother was the youngest of thirteen; my father was one of three. Most Irish families had a son or daughter who became a priest or nun, but not our family. As one Muldoon put it, "We Muldoons and Kellys are too highly sexed for vows of that sort."
They say that Italians and Irish make the best combination, but from my point of view, I think German and Irish isn’t half bad either. The emotionalism of the Irish, the drama, angst and additional drama, needs a steely framework to keep it in check, and that’s where all things "cold and German" come in handy.
Of course, the downside of the German personality is the holding in of emotions until the inevitable cosmic explosion. They talk about the Irish temper, but I can tell you there’s nothing worse than the German temper. It can seethe silently like a tea kettle for a long time, but then it explodes and obliterates everything in its path.
When it came to talking about sex, I much preferred the German approach as a teenager. The German approach was more tell-it-like-it-is than the roundabout avoidance thing that the Irish often do.
I mean, isn’t it a stereotype of sorts that the Irish hate to talk about sex? When I came home from the 7th grade one day and announced that I knew the facts of life, it was Mom who pulled out all the stops and wanted to know who my source was. I gave her a name, under tremendous pressure, then told her that I needed the facts—real facts—not all that metaphorical birds and bees stuff which didn’t seem to relate to human beings at all. My German aunt was much more matter-of-fact when it came to sex. Although much older than mom, her birds and bees delivery was utility-driven. It left no doubts. As a postscript, she even provided personal details from her own experience and then threw in little ‘help mate’ suggestions.
"I know the Germans have a heart, you just have to dig for it," I told my mother often, especially after one of her "cold fish" complaints about my father’s family.
Today I would have added that it’s hard to survive if you are too much one or the other. If you are all heart, you can get taken advantage of, whereas if you’re too cold, nobody will love you.
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