Irish Philadelphia

The Web guide to Irish music and culture in and around the Quaker City

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

What This Is All About

I am shivering at attention in the Holy Cross Cemetery in Yeadon, alongside the gravesite of Joseph McGarrity, the loyal Fenian financier born in Carrickmore, County Tyrone, who became a successful Philadelphia businessman.

It’s an usually chilly and damp day in the spring, and I can feel the wet and the cool of the tall grass all the way up my aching, goose bump-dotted calves. (I apologize for implanting that disturbing image in your head. I hope you weren’t eating.)

The thick socks and heavy woolen saffron kilt of my uniform do nothing to warm me on this solemn occasion, the annual memorial ceremony to commemorate the Easter Rising.

Across the McGarrity plot stands an honor guard and a host of Irish republican sympathizers, a few attired in vaguely paramilitary-style uniforms. They clutch Irish flags and banners memorializing IRA hunger strikers. One participant is particularly memorable–a tall, solidly-built young woman with stringy brown hair that blows like a banner in the breeze. She is wearing calf-high laced boots, a miniskirt and a beret. Bernadette Devlin meets Ché.

But it is her face, not her attire, which is most riveting. It’s a face that might be pretty in other circumstances, but on this occasion it is as cold and unyielding as the day, and it is a face I see again and again in the crowd of Philadelphia-area Irish-Americans who turn out faithfully for this event. There are several white-haired gents in tweed caps, old ladies in threadbare coats, middle-aged men wearing Ancient Order of Hibernians jackets, teen-age girls in Old Navy hoodies. On the street, in church, at the corner bar–in any other circumstance–you would not give any one of them a second look. But on this day, in the unsettlingly steady gaze of so many of them, there is evidence of the centuries-old intransigence. Talk all you want about the Good Friday Accord, but what you see in those faces is an unflinching determination that, ultimately, there will be no acceptable solution to the “troubles” other than a united Ireland, free of British influence.

On this frosty day, I’m with the band. I provide the drumbeat, and two pipers the steady drone, as we lead the procession through the sprawling Catholic burial ground, final resting place of more than 6,500 souls, a good many of them Irish.

I’m not what you would call a hard-core republican. I long for a just settlement and a lasting peace in Northern Ireland, and I can’t imagine a world in which the six counties of the north are not someday united with the Republic. Still, I’d like to believe the need for violence is at an end, and now it’s up to diplomats to finish the job. When it comes to peace and unity in Ireland, my head’s in a different camp altogether–but my heart is with these folks.

I’m also here in this cemetery out of curiosity. I want to know more about these people and their beliefs. My group, the Philadelphia Emerald Society Pipe Band, has been playing this gig for years. It seems to offer an opportunity to experience the republican side of Irish-American life in Philadelphia.

It’s one more way in which a casual decision years ago to join an Irish bagpipe band (a different band, as it turns out, from the band providing the tunes on this day) opened my eyes to Irish-American culture in and around Philadelphia.

I had pounded the drums in high school but had stopped playing not long after I got into college. I had always missed playing and performing. I’d always found the sound of bagpipes stirring, so I joined a new band I had just heard of called Irish Thunder, associated with the Ancient Order of Hibernians in Swedesburg.

Joining Irish Thunder proved to be my entrée to a culture of which I had been almost completely ignorant. Since that fateful decision, one thing has led to another.

I have played in the Philadelphia St. Patrick’s Day parade many times, and I have escorted the cardinal down the aisle for the annual St. Patrick’s Day Mass. I’ve marched in the end-of-summer block party for Philadelphia Celts that is the Wildwood Irish Festival. I have visited countless pubs, including the Mermaid Inn, which was my first exposure to the traditional Irish music session–which, in turn, led to my taking lessons in bodhran (an Irish frame drum) and tin whistle, and ultimately joining in the fun. I have played for dancers and singers. I have serenaded the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick, the Knights of Columbus, the AOH and the Emerald Society. I have written the occasional article for the Irish Edition. I have become intimately familiar with every dark corner and crevice of the Commodore Barry Club.

As a member of the Emerald Society Band, I helped dedicate the Irish Famine Memorial. I’ve eaten more than my fair share of brown bread, and I have lingered over a pint or two of Murphy’s Ale. I have met and (briefly) swapped jokes with Gerry Adams at Shannon Airport. I have learned a few choice Irish language expressions–including, of course, the obligatory “Póg mo thóin (kiss my ass).”

In just a few years, I have learned much about Quaker City Irish-American culture–and I owe it all to a loveable bunch of guys in skirts.

At the same time, I would be the very first to admit that compared to many people in the Irish-American community in Philadelphia, I still know next to nothing. I want to know more. In this quest for a better understanding of what it means to be an Irish-American in the Quaker City I am joined by my fellow mick Denise Foley.

We'll prime the pump by publishing articles I have written previously. But look for fresh new adventures soon

I will understand if you do not wish to trade in your trousers for clammy calves in order to learn more about the rich culture of Irish America in Philadelphia. Keep your pants on. With Denise, I’d like to share what we learn in our travels.

And as this introduction suggests, it ain’t all green beer and shamrocks.

Jeff Meade


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