Happy St. Patrick’s Day!
No parades, alas, or packed pubs. Not so many knots of young folk in black plastic bowlers and shamrock-tipped deely-bobbers doing their day-drinking forced marches from one River North bar to another.
The city did dye the river green, in a surprise bit of late coronavirus festivity — all together now, class: “THANK YOU MAYOR LIGHTFOOT! THANK YOU, PLUMBERS UNION!” — which worked, if only as a reminder that we don’t have to actually see stuff in person anymore as long as it flashes beautifully across Instagram.
And continuing our festive, look-on-the-bright-side mood, there is still Irish soda bread. Not quite as valuable as Yeats; not far behind, either.
That’s the trick nowadays. Turn losses into positives. For instance, yes, no big downtown St. Patrick’s Day Parade, no smaller-but-more-fun South Side Irish Parade.
You know what else there isn’t? I haven’t heard a single aggrieved Irish American complain bitterly that canceling the parades is a genocide against themselves and their culture, how their dead Irish ancestors who made the journey to Chicago will rise up from their uneasy graves to demand that those parades be held, COVID-19 be damned.
I’m sure both Irish Chicagoans and Plain Old Chicagoans in general aren’t happy about no parades. But even the more lackadaisical, mask-around-your-chin, pack-the-bar-tent-and-pretend-you’re-outside would-be revelers won’t stare grimly into the camera and claim this is being done to spite them. It’s encouraging to conjure sentiments so stupid that people aren’t expressing them. That gets harder and harder to do.
I only wish, come October, Italian Americans would take a cue from their Hibernian brethren and not renew their tired campaign to transform Columbus Day — intended a century ago to elevate the status of a loathed immigrant group by associating with a universally acclaimed American hero — into an annual self-destructive rage at multiculturalism, now that Columbus has become a loathed symbol of racist atrocity to everybody except them.
Rather than let go of the deadweight — Christopher Columbus having as much to do with Italian culture as tai chi — they hug harder as it bears them down into the inky depths. C’mon guys. Read the room. Hint: “Fermi Day.” Pushing Italian American pride AND science. Make it on his birthday, Sept. 29, and you won’t even have to move the holiday very far on the calendar. At least think about it. No? Well, I tried.
Returning to our St. Patrick’s Day celebration. In years past, I liked to draw attention to the Irish writers whose photos gaze mutely, ignored, from pub walls. I find it cool that many came through Chicago. Even casual readers know Oscar Wilde was here, through his deathless observation that the Water Tower looks like a “a castellated monstrosity with pepperboxes stuck all over it.” Less known is that this comment was not an offhand quip, but scripted provocation. Wilde wasn’t so much a poet when he spoke here — he hadn’t yet written much — as a provocateur, a sort of 19th century performance artist, and his technique was to give speeches that stirred up the yokels, to gain attention, which feels very 21st century, very Fox News.
The famed Irish writer who spent the most time in Chicago was ... anybody? C’mon guys, why am I the only one who knows this stuff? It was Eugene O’Neill, whose family spent months here while his father, James O’Neill, performed in the trash melodramas that Little Eugene would skewer in “Long Day’s Journey Into Night.”
The famed playwright’s earliest memory was being a little boy, sick from typhoid fever in a Chicago hotel room, with Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse and other Sioux performers from Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show gathered around his bedside, in feathered headdresses and draped blankets, trying to cheer him up.
That never happened, at least not with the cast O’Neill name-checks. His biographers, lining up the dates, realized that O’Neill, then 4, must have met Ghost Dancers assembled for the World’s Columbian Fair. The memory still lingered, vivid enough that O’Neill would lecture a reporter in the mid-1940s about his lifelong sympathy for Native Americans.
“The great battle of American history was the Battle of Little Big Horn,” O’Neill enthused. “The Indians wiped out the white men, scalped them. That was a victory in American history. It should be featured in all our school books as the greatest victory in American history.”
Which is not far from where we find ourselves today. A reminder why writers like Eugene O’Neill stick around. They’re always current, one way or another.