To grow up in Boston in the mid-20th century in an extended multi-neighborhood family, where an Irish cultural atmosphere dominated time spent away from school for the children and away from work for the adults, was to know that while the United States held the promise of good things to come, the old country, where your heart was supposed to be, held the memories and the traditions.
And March was the month when it all came together: Thinking about St. Patrick meant thinking of spring, a novena, a parade, a boisterous card game, and trips all over metropolitan Boston to visit older relatives of my father’s who smoked pipes and gulped highballs and whose speaking style – rushed, harsh sounds delivered gutturally – spoke to people, times, and places my father delighted in that were out of sight and out of mind for me and my three brothers and sister.
It was never easy to figure out exactly what my teetotaler mother made of it all, but she was always there, always chatting, and remarkably knowledgeable about what was going on with the stay-backs in my father’s family over in Oughterard, Galway, whence came my grandmother, my father, and his three sisters to Somerville in the 1920s.
The kickoff to this special month for Catholic school kids in my parish was the St. Francis Xavier Novena, which ran each year from March 4 to the 12th. For about ten years, this was a must gathering for my family and for most of St. Mark’s Parish. When I was enrolled in the parish school (September 1948-June 1956) and in high school, every March 4th there came to Dorchester Avenue a Jesuit from somewhere to preach to us for seven straight afternoons and evenings, take your pick. I remember as an early teen hearing a Father Mohan, S.J., enticing the young among the congregation by ending one long sermon with a promise that the next day he was going to take up a three-letter subject that was “certainly of interest to all of you.” Of course, we thought it was s-e-x; but, no; it was s-i-n.
Once we had all affirmed our faith via this endeavor, it was time to enjoy the Saint’s month. We lived in a five-room flat, but every year during a Saturday night in March it somehow accommodated a dozen or so Irish relatives who came from Somerville and other places to visit and to enjoy endless hands of 45, a card game I never got the hang of. As I recall, preparation for this event by my parents was minimal; they only had to clear all the tables in the house. The players, including my grandmother, brought along victuals, and my Dad went up to Lamont’s liquor store and bought ales and beers called, among other brands, Narragansett, Dawson, and Pickwick, and a bottle or two of whiskey for the shot glasses.
The relatives came early and stayed late, suffusing our cozy little abode with merriment and, for my father especially, a rush of tugs on family ties.
Not everyone could join in the card game at once around the dining room table, so non-participants sat in the kitchen and living room talking and talking and talking and often laughing uproariously while the Mulvoy children sat on the floor and listened, trying to make sense of it all.
That was the home game. For the rest of the month, we were on the road. We had no relatives in South Boston, so instead of a front porch or a living room facing the route we made do with the curbstones and watched the parade from knee-level; we took the MTA to Somerville for awfully long visits to our aunts, uncles, and numerous cousins, and we drove out to John Byrnes’s farm in Milford where one March my father picked up a soldier hitch-hiker along the route and squeezed him into the back seat with me and two of my brothers. And we loved to visit the gregarious Mary and Mike Beatty’s house on Highland Ave. in Somerville where twice I went to wakes where the bodies (my dad’s Aunt Mary and Uncle Pete) were laid out in open caskets in the parlor while the crowded flat was filled with relatives and friends making good cheer and, of course, praying when it came time to.
It wasn’t until I was in high school that I learned how important my father’s aunt and uncle were to him and to our family. It was they who in 1921 offered their home as security with the city of Somerville in pledging that their new immigrant relatives, the widow Barbara Mulvoy, her 12-year-old son Tommy, and her daughters Celia and Agnes and Catherine, would not add their names to the community’s welfare rolls.
All this happened a long time ago, but each year when another March looms, it was really only yesterday.