Irish Slums

December 5, 2013 § 3 Comments

Last month, I met Michael Patrick MacDonald at an Irish Studies conference in Rhode Island.  He was the keynote speaker.  I didn’t know much about him beforehand, other than he wrote All Souls about growing up in South Boston in the 70s and 80s.  I knew All Souls was a story about heartbreak, drugs, and the devastation suffered by his family.  But MacDonald’s talk was one of the best I’d ever heard, he spoke of Whitey Bulger, drugs, Southie, his work in non-violence and intervention, and he talked about gentrification.  He was eloquent and fierce at the same time.  He is, of course, an ageing punk.  He was also pretty cool to talk to over beers in the hotel bar later that night.

I finally got around to reading All Souls last week.  I’m glad I did.  I was stunned that MacDonald and his siblings could survive what they’ve survived: three of their brothers dead due to gangs, drugs, and violence.  One of their sisters permanently damaged by a traumatic brain injury brought about due to drugs.  And another brother falsely accused of murder.  It was a heartbreaking read, at least to a point.  I know how the story ends, obviously.

It was also interesting to read another version of Southie than the one in the mainstream here in Boston.  The mainstream is that Southie was an Irish white trash ghetto, run by Whitey Bulger, terrorised by Whitey Bulger, but all those Irish were racists, as evidenced by the busing crisis in 1974.  And while MacDonald tried to revise that narrative, both in his talk and in All Souls, pertaining to the busing crisis, it is hard to argue that racism wasn’t the underlying cause of the explosion of protesting and violence.  But, MacDonald also offers both a personal and a sociological view of how Southie was terrorised and victimised by Bulger (and his protectors in the FBI and the Massachusetts State Senate).  And, today, he talks about gentrification in a way that most mainstream commentators do not (something I’ve railed about in my extended series on Pointe-Saint-Charles, Montréal, his blog, Pt. 1, Pt. 2, Pt. 3, Pt. 4, and Pt. 5).

But something else also struck me in reading MacDonald’s take on Southie.  I found that he echoed many of the oldtimers I’ve talked to in Griffintown and the Pointe in Montréal about their experiences growing up.  Griff and the Pointe were the Montréal variant of Southie, downtrodden, desperately poor Irish neighbourhoods.  And yet, there is humour to be found in the chaos and poverty, and there is something to be nostalgic for in looking back.

MacDonald writes:

I didn’t know if I loved or hated this place.  All those beautiful dreams and nightmares of my life were competing in the narrow littered streets of Old Colony Project.  Over there, on my old front stoop at 8 Patterson Way, were the eccentric mothers, throwing their arms around and telling wild stories.  Standing on the corners were the natural born comedians making everyone laugh.  Then there were the teenagers wearing their flashy clothes, their ‘pimp’ gear, as we called it.  And little kids running in packs, having the time of their lives in a world that was all theirs.

This echoes something journalist Sharon Doyle Driedger wrote of Griffintown, where she grew up:

Griffintown had the atmosphere of an old black-and-white movie.  Think The Bells of St. Mary’s,with nuns and priests and Irish brogue and choirs singing Latin hymns.  Then throw in the Bowery Boys, the soft-hearted tough guys wisecracking on the corner.

The difference, of course, is that MacDonald’s ambivalence runs deep, he also sees the drug addicts and dealers, and the grinding poverty.  Doyle Driedger didn’t.  But, MacDonald is standing in Southie as an adult when he sees this scene, Doyle Dreidger is writing from memory.

Nostalgia is a funny thing, and it’s not something to be dismissed, as many academics and laypeople do.  It is, in my books, an intellectually lazy and dishonest thing to do.  Nostalgia is very real and is something that tinges all of our views of our personal histories.

But what I find more interesting here are the congruencies between what MacDonald and Doyle Driedger writes, between what MacDonald says in All Souls and what he said in his talk last month in Rhode Island, and what the old-timers from Griff and the Pointe told me whenever I talked to them.  There was always this nostalgia, there was always this black humour in looking back.  I also just read Roddy Doyle’s Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, about a kid growing up in Dublin’s Barrytown, a fictional inner-city neighbourhood.  Through Paddy Clarke, Doyle constructs an idyllic world for a boy to grow up in, as he and his mates owned the neighbourhood, running around in packs, just like the kids in Southie MacDonald describes, and just as MacDonald and his friends did when they were kids.

I don’t know if this is something particular to Irish inner-city slums or not.  But I do see this tendency as occurring any time I talk to someone who grew up in such a neighbourhood, or read stories, whether fiction or non-fiction, to say nothing of the music of the Dropkick Murphys (I’m thinking, in particular, of almost the entirety of their first album, Do Or Die, or the track “Famous for Nothing,” on their 2007 album, The Meanest of Times),  I’m not one for stereotyping the Irish, or any other group for that matter, I don’t think there’s anything “inherent” to the Irish, whether comedy, fighting, or alcoholism.  But there is something about this view of Irish slums.

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§ 3 Responses to Irish Slums

  • I would guess that any of the inner-city slums of today’s metropolitan regions could offer similar experiences. Certainly parts of Rexdale, Malvern, Regent Park in Toronto, where the common elements are poverty and recent immigration. Mere blocks away from 3500 sq ft. homes, Audis, BMWs and backyard swimming pools. Might as well be another continent.

    So how would their stories differ from the Irish you speak of? Is it outlook? Coping mechanisms? Or does abject poverty feel the same across any nationality?

    • John Matthew Barlow says:

      I don’t know, that’s the question. I’ve known people from other inner city slums in Montréal, Boston and elsewhere, and they don’t recall it in the same way. Certainly, representations of slums in pop culture are different for Irish ones vs. other ones. The thing I see in Southie, Griff, PSC, or Hell’s Kitchen, for that matter, is always the feeling of insularity, the Irish created worlds for themselves inside their slums, they didn’t have to leave, nor did they feel comfortable doing so.

      But that doesn’t make them unique, either. Jewish slums in Montréal and NYC were like that, so was the North End of Boston as an Italian slum, but from what I’ve seen in evidence in research, the insularity that existed in the Irish slums didn’t exist in the Main or the North End or the Lower Eastside. I don’t know why that is. Perhaps it is a legacy of Ireland and the Irish experience of imperialism in their homeland? I really don’t know.

  • […] historically Irish section of Chicago’s South Side.  Canaryville, like Southie or Griff, is rather legendary for being both Irish and hostile to […]

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