Sunday, May 2, 2010

Danny Boy

I am always intrigued by the Irish each March when ‘Saint Patty’s Day’ is celebrated. All countries have their own music or some distinguishing art form. The Irish of course, have their songs, their brogue and their playwrights. The English their literature-who can deny Shakespeare, the French their art, the Italians their Operas and sculpture, the Austrians their waltzes, the Poles their polkas, the Germans their Wagnerian music, and so the list goes on.

But of all the ethnic songs, I think the songs of Ireland are the saddest. Perhaps it’s because of the potato famine and the subsequent great migration to America, perhaps because of the oppression by the British, perhaps the rugged country. But certainly theirs is a culture of contrast. The Irish of course like to tip a few as they say, dance a jig or just confound you with their brogue, perhaps in an attempt to ease the burden of sadness.

In the anthracite region of Eastern Pennsylvania where I grew up, Irish immigrants worked in the coal mines along side the Poles, Germans, Italians, and other Eastern Europeans. In the evenings and especially during weekends, the neighborhood bars were filled with loud laughter, occasional brawls and always songs. It was often said that more coal was mined in the taverns at night than in the mines during the day. In addition to tipping a few, the Irish loved to sing. Singing would erupt spontaneously in the bars, usually late at night, near closing time. Songs like ‘I’ll take you home again Kathleen’, ‘Danny Boy’, ‘When Irish eyes are smiling’ and ‘Galway Bay’ could be heard almost nightly. All the ethnic groups joined in and the songs became great barroom favorites, except for Danny Boy. It was the saddest of all.

Calling someone a Danny Boy was considered a derogatory term. It referred to Irishmen who had forgotten their promise to some lovely colleen who stayed on the old sod, and waited for them to return, or send tickets to bring them to America. The men left, no jobs were available, and sailed for America where after a time they married Polish or Eastern European girls. They were not treated well by the Irish who had married their colleens or by the Poles or Eastern Europeans.

We lived for a time near one such family. When he tipped too many and was not able to report for work, the men said he was just a Danny Boy. Somehow people found out that he had promised to return to the old sod, but instead married a Ukrainian girl. A nice lady who often gave us treats. He was a frequent visitor to our house and told tales of how he was in training to become a doctor before he came to America. But he was shunned by the Irish contingent and could never fit into the Eastern European culture. The language barrier alone was difficult enough. After his wife died, and the children left, never to return, he tipped a few more than he should have and his life slipped away in drunkenness.

The Irish potato famine caused a great migration and many colleens grew old and died waiting on the old sod for their Danny Boys who never returned. They are the sad ones remembered in the song. But like my neighbor, there were perhaps an equal number of forgotten Danny Boys, never remembered in song, who also suffered in silence or tipped one too many.

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