Wednesday, March 18, 2009


Further down, under ‘Cresco Irish’ I discuss the predicament of adolescents
Confessing dirty thoughts, so they could go to Communion.

A friend told me later that he one time confessed dirty thoughts,
Then walked 2 blocks from the church and had another dirty thought.
Problem: should he go back to the church and make another confession?

After a while, most youths got brazen. One time a priest asked this kid,
“Did you ENTERTAIN those thoughts?”
The kid answered, “No, they entertained me.”

Friday, March 13, 2009


This piece is in the Natl. Archives of Ireland.

We didn’t see ourselves as slaves, but as the people who knew God’s private Name, in an alien country, surrounded by outsiders insensitive or contemptuous of the true religion.
Cresco was county seat, with about 3000 people: Scandinavians, Germans, Irish, Bohemians, and Britishers.

The town was dominated by a few Scotch-Mason lawyers and bankers. (My father feared an international conspiracy, involving as usual Jews and Communists—but untypically he saw these groups as dupes: the conspiracy was ruled by Scotch Masons.)

This town had 2 large Catholic churches, three blocks apart with about 500 parishioners in each—with 2 separate schools. One parish was mainly German. The other—Assumption--, run completely by the Irish, included some subdued Bohemians.

The Archbishop in Dubuque saw these 2 parishes as inefficient and once proposed a merger. The Germans noted that the Irish never paid their church debt—if cornered, they would merge instead with the German Lutherans. But later, the bishop sneakily installed a half-breed priest in each parish. By 1950 the 2 schools, at least, had merged.
Today Cresco has only 1 priest; he says early Mass at Assumption, then later Mass at St. Joseph’s, the German Church.

The Irish school had included a high-school, but the German school ended in 8th grade.
I was one of the first Assumption 8th-graders who dared to go to public high-school.
The priest roared up to warn of damnation—he sometimes refused Communion to defaulting parents.

My mother pointed out
a) that canon law didn’t require you to go to an INFERIOR Catholic school;

and (b) that the German priest encouraged his youth to go to the public high-school, so he didn’t have to pay Assumption tuition. “I find it hard to believe,” mother said, “that a mortal sin on one side of town is an act of virtue 3 blocks away.”
The priest fled.


Crescp was completely run by the Protestant majority. The school question stirred up resentment, which united the Protestant churches against us.
(Naturally parents supporting the 2 Catholic schools would vote against more money for the public school.) Until 5 years old, I thought the quarrel was between
Catholics and Publics.

Once a Catholic ran for the school board. My aunt was a telephone operator, a ‘Central’—she overheard frantic warnings by the preachers and the Masons.
Little old ladies, it was said, were brought out to vote in stretchers.

In the 1930s some Democrats infiltrated the court-house.
My grandfather, I believe, was the first Irish Catholic ever elected to the
State Senate. My father was County Recorder. He never counted on Irish votes; they hated to see another Irishman get ahead; he won by Bohemian votes.

(Later Dad was a traveling salesman.Once he complained to a hotel owner:
“I can’t use that outhouse; it’s too full of flies!”/”Wait till lunch; they’ll all move to the dining-room.”)

The main Irish/German tensions were over their attitudes toward money.
The Germans were frugal but stolid. Dad would sometimes indulge in racial
Self-hatred, sourly praising the Germans for holding on to their land.
But the Irish love of talk suited them well as salesmen after 1945;
The Irish ended up richer than the Germans. We snickered over the Germans’ pathetic attempt to match our glorious, lent-breaking St.Patrick’s Day with their drab St.Joseph’s Day. An aunt in Dubuque said the town was fine until THEY showed up; the blacks? No, the Germans.

The German Church continued to hear confessions in German all thru WW I,
When saurkraut was renamed Freedom Cabbage. But in WWII they gave up
And switched to English.

Both of my grandfathers were big land speculators in the 20’s. Each owned a small percentage of a lot of land; both were paper millionaires. Both were wiped out by the Depression—and my father, afflicted with 9 children, turned to alcohol.
We were quite poor. Dad had a steady income—steadily inadequate for his big family. (We were prolific; it is said that my great-grandfather, Jeremias Lyons,
Now has 1000 descendants.) We had a 3-lot garden. Other families raised pigs/cows right in town.

Poor as we were, we had a maid; farm girls would work for board/room (sharing a bed with my 2 sisters) and the clothes mother sewed for them, in order to go to high-school in town.
This was lucky, because my mother had to hold down a 2d job while my father drank.

One nice legend about the local farmers was this: when Roosevelt directed them to kill the baby pigs (to raise the price of pork) they feared God’s punishment for such waste. Secretly they brought the dead piglets to town for the poor families like ours.
We had canned pork for several years. We also had lots of room to run.
Rural poverty, cold/rats/missed meals and all, is not as bad as tenement poverty.

The Irish priests were devout or lax, but always arrogant.

Originally the school & convent were housed in one huge mansion.
But long ago, after the brick school was built, some pastor had evicted the nuns to a small house (2 or 3 nuns to a bedroom) while he and his assistant rattled around
In the mansion. No subsequent pastor thought to give the mansion back to the nuns.
It was 1950, I believe, before that order of nuns left town in a fury—
the replacement order demanded a proper convent before their arrival.
(now of course there are no nuns.)

My uncle was a well-known lawyer, and chair of the parish financial committee.
He once refused to sign the pastor’s version of the budget.
“Sign that paper,” thundered the priest, “or I’ll denounce you from the pulpit!”
“Do that,” said my uncle, “and I’ll call you liar from the church.”
All very well, said my father, but that uncle—a heavy smoker—died of throat cancer.

The people felt resigned resentment of the priests. We were taught that the efficacy of Mass & Sacraments did not depend on the worthiness of the priests. One pastor was a dotty saint—he tried never to use his right thumb & forefinger, which touched the Holy Bread,For any mundane task. These fingers got clawlike—but he did smoke cigars—held in his left hand. This same priest went into the burning church to rescue the Holy Bread—the bishop had to notify everyone that the eucharistic Christ could look out for Himself.

The nuns were B.V.Ms:Sisters of Charity of the Bl.Virgin Mary. They wore a black veiled box around their heads. We’d say to a girl: “you should be a BVM—you’ve got the head for it.

When I went to the convent, 6 yrs old, for piano lessons—
There, right above the piano, was a 6-foot long photograph of a dead nun in her coffin: Mother Mary Clarke, holy foundress of the Order. Obscenely, she didn’t have on her head the box I thought was built into them—she has only a little nightcap over her presumably shaved head. My interest in piano wilted.

Mild violence was the order of the school day. Children were slapped, yardsticked, and thrown against walls.Many nuns were farm women right from Ireland: ignorant, unhappy and cruel. But being hit by a nun was like being hit by a cross old-maid aunt concerned for your welfare—however crazily conceived. Many stories were told of martyrs with hot lead in the eyeballs, of miracles, of lurid cases of diabolic possession. (That’s where I got my love of folklore.)

I was trying to convert a Lutheran woman. She has mothered 12 Catholic children whom she sent often to weekday Mass. Yet the nuns referred to her regularly as a horrible example of a mixed marriage.

One day after school I hurried over to find her ironing, as usual.
I related this miracle story: this Irish girl in Chicago faced an obviously
Threatening criminal. Instinctively the girl screamed, “Mary conceived without Original Sin--pray for us who have recourse to thee !” A cop appeared out of nowhere and hauled the villain off.

I waited for the woman to surrender. Wearily she looked up from her ironing and asked, “Wouldn’t the policeman have come if she just yelled HELP?”
I gave up on converting HER !

I remember ancient, scrawny little Sister Mary Uriel, who would cackle when asked her age,”I’m as old as my little finger, and a little older than my teeth.”
I remember how spryly she leaped up to slap a surplice across my face.
One of her maxims: “Sow an act & reap a habit; sow a habit and reap a character; sow a character and reap an eternal destiny.” A less dramatic maxim: “It’s better to wear out than to rust out.” I’m not sure she ever did either one.


The Catholic school wallowed in super-patriotism; each morning we sang the
Star Spangled Banner in front of the school while the flag was raised. We knew that Shakespeare was a secret Catholic of course, as was Lincoln. We heard often of the Catholic scientist who lent his name to galvanized iron. But the actual effect of such ‘ethnic history’ was to make us see these Catholic notables as exceptions that proved the rule of Catholic mediocrity.

When Protestant children would remind us during WWII that the Pope was Italian,
We’d feel contempt that they didn’t realize this was a meaningless fluke,
Like Jesus being Jewish.

The British of course were legendary enemies. Many Iowa Irish felt that if Hitler was hated by the Jews, the Communists, and the King of England, well, he couldn’t be all bad.

Quasi-fascist sentiments were common in Cresco. In spite of the anti-Catholc feelings, if you walked down a street at the right time, you’d hear rabid Father Coughlin’s voice blaring from every house, Protestant or Catholic.

The British were hated, but I picked up a strange admiration for them, which showed in our near-worship of British Catholic saints, or convert writers:
St. Thomas More, Cardinal Newman, G.K. Chesterton—even disreputable
Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene. I felt betrayed when I read Waugh’s life of Blessed Edmund Campion. Waugh quoted with malicious relish a letter showing Champion’s contempt for the savage Irish.

The Irish loved Joe McCarthy when he showed up. Only when he was disgraced did we remember that he was, after all, mostly German.

We were super-patriotic (my brother enlisted at 17); but we referred to ourselves as Irish, not as Americans. And my children, deplorably enough, are almost 100% Irish,
Though my family has been here for nearly 2 centuries.

In Korea I met an Irish American, wounded in combat, who was reproached by a clerk for saying he was Irish, tho born in America. He snorted,
“If a cat has kittens in an oven, do you call ‘em biscuits?”

In 1960, I was teasing an aunt that she voted for Kennedy because he was Catholic.
“I did not; I voted because he was Irish ! You don’t think I’d vote for one of those German Catholics !”
Whatever twitches I will always have from abusive nuns, I forgive them everything for teaching me hymns like ADESTE FIDELES, PANGE LINGUA, VEXILLA REGIS and DIES IRAE. With no other access to great music, the plain-chant was a revelation. The Church has thrown out much of the old liturgy (except for the Easter vigil) and replaced the old Black Requiem with a cheerful White Resurrection Mass.

The DIES IRAE, the canticle of the Last Judgment, was not trumpeting the damnation of ordinary sinners. These could repent and make it into Purgatory.
I heard this hymn as revolutionary, about how the smug mighty ones would be exposed on Judgment Day—when the solid-seeming social world of winners and losers would dissolve.

Repentance was easy, and mercy available, for us garden-variety sinners.
The priests who were lions in the pulpit were often lambs in the confessional.
In theory, a single dirty thought could damn you; but the priest might say calmly,
“Suppose you ate some poisoned sweet—then even when you were trying to spit it out, you couldn’t help enjoying the sweet taste.” (Actually, this didn’t help that much.) But it turned out you weren’t expected to do your best—only to do your best to do your best. Remorse and excessive guilt were suspect, Judas-like.
What was appropriate for ordinary people was the shame felt by Peter when he wept over his weak betrayal.

It was said of the unlucky horseman, “Between the stirrup and the ground,
He mercy sought and mercy found.” Another slogan was “inter pontem et fontem”—
You might find mercy between the bridge and the river. God was fair-minded, if strict—and the Blessed Virgin was there for one who needed mercy beyond any rational limit. So when I heard the DIES IRAE, I didn’t worry about being trapped in sin at death-time (especially since I had made the 9 First Fridays!) This awful fate was reserved for distinguished and insolent rebels, not for us tame, weak sheep
Marked for Purgatory. (Somehow we avoided thinking about the painful aspect of Purgatory.)

Another reason I’m not so happy about the cheerfulness in the New Church is that now, when we really need a liturgy of mourning for our crumbling world,
The Catholic Church—once so magnificently able to express grief—
Seems to have succumbed to a mindless, Rotarian optimism.
But there was no hint of this strange outcome in Assumption parish
In the ‘30s.

The Holy Week liturgy, with its awesome purple-draped statues, led us masterfully into the story of the Divine Hero, His awful death and His springtime Resurrection.
On Good Friday it always rained and we always planted potatoes.

Then at noon came the 3-hour Royal Funeral, with that magnificent anti-Semitic hymn: ”MY PEOPLE, MY PEOPLE, WHAT HAVE I DONE TO YOU? HOW HAVE I FAILED YOU? I LED YOU OUT OF EGYPT AND YOU LED ME TO THE GIBBET OF THE CROSS.” Then we prayed in English for the ‘perfidious Jews’.

Early on the dark morning of Holy Saturday came the archaic ceremonies of fire and water, where the six-foot male candle was plunged again and again into the fertile baptismal water. Half nauseated from fasting, we looked forward to gorging ourselves on candy at the stroke of noon,to end our Lenten fast (kept well or ill).

All this convinced me that we really did know the secret name of God, while the snickering outsiders were sunk in invincible ignorance. Those outsiders said wrongly that we worshipped statues; Little did they know that what we really adored was the white, round Host, the Body of Christ, displayed in a golden Monstrance, which I stared at hypnotically during half-hour ‘visits’—we approached the altar with three double genuflections. Walking past the church on a dull Iowa street, I felt with Chesteron that the inside of the church was bigger than the outside. The liturgy did not grip most Catholics this way; it took a special combination of neurotic family tradition and high taste to make me love it so.

Many Irish families featured vivid mothers and sisters and dull fathers.
The mother often dominated the family by addicting them to her slave-like

Any talk of sex was out of place. An old aunt recalled that, as a spinster living at home, she once asked her father (the Senator) what ‘rape’ meant.
He forbade her to read any more newspapers. When she finally married, neither she nor her husband had any idea what to do—‘but we had great fun learning.’
A true Irishman doesn’t need adultery;respectable marriage is deliciously and mysterious fascinating enough—at least at first.

At age 4, I saw a robin’s nest in our apple tree and suggested to my older sister that we must come from eggs also. She hit me in the mouth; I noted that she had some kinky hatred of birds.

The Irish repressed talk of sex, but not of death, which was morbidly interesting.
Chicago Irish are quite different from Iowa Irish, but their attitude toward death was just as open. In my wife’s huge extended family, the ancients died at home.
But the younger people stood up to them. (Perhaps that’s why typical Americans now have to ship out their ancients; they’re unbearable because nobody can fight with them.) This one old matriarch was terrorizing the family in her last weeks.
Her daughter, mistress of the house, took her by the shoulder and said,
“You want to drag all of us into the grave with you. I’ll someday have to die alone.
Now you must die alone.”

Being raised thusly gave me roots—partle poisonous and neurotic roots, but still roots. I have a strong sense of being a single,substantial self—not necessarily one I approve of--in all my roles: a child in Iowa, a soldier-clerk in Korea, a factory worker, a monastic novice, a husband/father, and a college teacher.
Hearing students talk about doubting their identity, I figured they picked up that talk from sociologists. But maybe they just lacked strong community roots.