In his younger days, my father was a Chicago softball player, a beer drinker and a charismatic Irish storyteller.
Among my favorite stories was the one he used to tell relatives and friends about the time he watched from our living room window, when I had gotten into a fistfight.
He conjured a scary word picture of the other boy — bigger than me and menacing — lunging like a bull to tackle and take me down.
I got goose bumps when my father would swivel his head and shoulders to demonstrate the nifty way I sidestepped and tripped the aggressor, sending him sprawling. And how after I duplicated the maneuver a second time, and was about to pin him to the ground with a headlock, my father bolted outside to intervene.
And how that was the turning point: My father ordered us to stop. I respectfully obeyed. But the boy kept coming, catching me with a right hook on my left ear — like a boxer who throws an illegal “sucker punch” after the bell, said my dad.
But as much as I always relished hearing the old man’s tale of my heroics, it just wasn’t true.
Yes, there had been a “fight.” But my role amounted to little more than running for my life from my tormentor who was trying to catch me in our Evergreen Park front yard. And it wasn’t till my father came outside that I slowed up, thinking I’d been saved, when the other kid was finally was able to clip me with a wild right.
Still, my father was not lying. In fact, he was performing a valuable service as an Irish raconteur, to compel an audience with a story by varnishing the truth with a thin coat of entertainment.
For the same reason, President Obama ought to honor St. Patrick’s Day by issuing a pardon to media celebrities Brian Williams of NBC and Bill O’Reilly of Fox News, both of whom have been accused lately of lying about their exploits.
Again, maybe lying is not the fairest characterization. What they did was more like personal embellishment. Or episodic hyperbolization, if you will.
Because what the news reporters and mainstream media critics have failed to point out is that both men, like my father, have Irish in their blood.
Not to those of us whose ancestors hail from the Emerald Isle. And probably not to the majority of Americans who are, at least, somewhat familiar with the tradition of Irish storytellers.
The legendary Irish “gift of gab” did not just begin with playwrights Oscar Wilde and Sean O’Casey, according to Eugene McKendry, writing for BBC. Rather it derives much earlier from the pre-Christian era when important information about Celtic people was not written down but passed along orally by seanchai, traditional storytellers or historians.
A Celtic war story, for example, that has been passed down orally from one generation to the next, is never static: “It has no set text, but is endlessly re-created in the telling.”
A good storyteller, therefore, is adept at making the necessary “subtle changes,” McKendry wrote, that are necessary for connecting with a local audience.
Brian Williams has been the anchor of the top-rated network news program because, like Walter Cronkite, he has inspired trust and confidence in his audience. A polished seanchai, he has been narrating American history while also manifesting compassion and a down to earth, regular guy image for 22 years.
But when Williams recounted a story in which he falsely placed himself in a helicopter over Iraq that was hit by enemy fire, he allowed the entertainment function of Irish storytelling to supersede responsible world news.
An honest mistake, to be sure, especially in view of the rankings and pressures in the TV industry.
Once he was called on it, Williams has been nothing but contrite, and American forgiveness is an easy call.
As for Bill O’Reilly’s story about using his charm and fluency in Spanish to disarm an Argentine soldier who had pointed a rifle at him during the War in the Falklands, well, that’s a little tougher to forgive.
Despite documentation and eyewitness reports proving that O’Reilly wasn’t anywhere near the war, nor in the vicinity of any violent demonstrations, he remains unapologetic, remains vindictive towards the eyewitnesses, and remains, well, Bill O’Reilly!
But he’s 100 percent Irish. And March 17th is coming. And pardoning the obnoxious O’Reilly, along with Brian Williams, will prove to everyone that there’s no more benign, no more merciful, and no more green a country on St. Paddy’s Day, than the U.S.A.
David McGrath is Irish Emeritus English Professor, College of DuPage, and author of THE TERRITORY.