MAY 7, 2007
'Dear Mick," read the invitation. When it arrived in my inboxseveral weeks ago, I was immediately suspicious: Yes, I was beingoffered an honorary award, complete with a gala Manhattan ceremony.But this salutation was not just wrong; it was strangely loaded. Astnr readers may recall, I recently had a hostile run-in with thepulp science-fiction author and global-warming denier MichaelCrichton, who, as payback for a critical article I wrote about him,had classily placed a character named Mick Crowley in his latestnovel--like me, a journalist; unlike me, a kiddie rapist (See "Cockand Bull," December 25, 2006). Pondering the invitation, I couldn'thelp but wonder if a Crichton minion might be laying some new trapfor me. Then I noticed something even odder. The invitationpurported to come from an Irish-American group. Was I being calledMick--or a Mick? The paranoid mind ran amok.
It turned out to be an innocent misunderstanding. The author of thee-mail, a young editor with Irish America magazine, graciouslyassured me that no pun had been intended with the "typo." Typo?This seemed more Freudian slip than errant keystroke. But nevermind. He had come not to bury me but to praise me: I wasexperiencing the honor of being named one of the magazine's Top 100Irish- Americans of the year. There was just one small hitch: I'mnot Irish.
Well, I'm fractionally Irish. Crowley is a distinctly Gaelic lastname. One genealogy website calls it an anglicization of OCruadhlaoich, from the words cruadh ("hardy") and laoch("warrior")--which will amuse those who have observed me in thewilderness or getting a tetanus shot. My surname is probably mymost Irish trait. My blood is only one-quarter Irish, on my father'sside. By most definitions, I am a Connecticut wasp--moreSouthampton than South Boston. I regret to say that I probably haveless in common with the Irish than with those who once tried to barthem from polite society.
Luckily, Irish America was unconcerned about my 75 percentnon-Irishness, provided I was "proud of [my] Irish roots." That wasa little awkward, as it had never previously occurred to me to beproud of my Irish roots. But, if my ancestry was exciting tosomeone else, well, who was I to protest? What's more, it's noteasy being a wasp nowadays. In our meritocratic, "American Idol"culture, anti-elitism is running high. So I figured some rebrandingas a scrappy ethnic underdog couldn't hurt. I told Irish AmericaI'd be honored to accept the award.
And why not? Everyone else in Washington is plumbing their ownsecret ancestry. No political career is complete anymore withoutsome startling genealogical bombshell: George Allen is the world'smost unlikely Jew; Barack Obama's ancestors owned slaves; AlSharpton's great-greatsomethings were owned by Strom Thurmond'sgreat-great-somethings; John Kerry's real family name is Kohn. (TheBoston Irish always suspected he wasn't really one of theirs.) Soon"oppo" researchers will traffic in divorce records and nucleic acidswith equal ease.
Besides, being thought a proper Irishman can open doors. A Bostonpolitico's secretary once promised to pass on a message because"Crowley is a good Irish name." But the knife cuts both ways. AfterI appeared on a cable talk show recently, I received a ramblingvoicemail screed from one ornery viewer clearly familiar with theorigins of the Crowley name. "I know you're one of those low- classIrish who never moved past the New Deal Democrats," he sneered. Nowthat really got my blood boiling. A quarter of it, anyway.
Prejudice will always endure. But the Irish-American image did dodgea bullet this month when federal prosecutors in Boston said theywon't charge the former state Senate president, William "Billy"Bulger, for obstructing efforts to locate his brother, thenotorious fugitive gangster "Whitey" Bulger. You couldn't make thispair up. Whitey spent years as an FBI informant, despite his rolein an alleged 19 murders. Meanwhile, Billy was the most powerfulfigure in state politics. The dark comedy crescendoed in 1991, whenWhitey "won" a $14 million state lottery jackpot. (Luck of theIrish, indeed.) In 1995, he fled the country. Billy claimsignorance of his brother's whereabouts--and, moreover, denies anyobligation to help locate him. Fine. But how about some Powerballpicks?
I can, at least, say that I've visited Ireland. Amazingly, thatcountry now ranks as the European Union's richest nation, measuredby GDP per capita. The attendant development and gentrificationhasn't entirely snuffed out the land of Angela's Ashes, however. Ata pub I visited in the coastal town of Dingle, an extremely drunkman was harassing other patrons with menacing stares, randomoutbursts of shouting, and occasionally sitting down at the tablesof alarmed strangers. A local wearily explained to me that no onewould throw out the drunk--he was a former IRA man and prone toviolence. Moreover, he had a good heart: Earlier in the night, he'dwalked home a priest too drunk to make it back on his own.
Last month, my journey into a state of full, celebrated Irishnesswas complete when I arrived in midtown Manhattan for the IrishAmerica awards ceremony. A lapel sticker in the form of a greenfour-leaf clover was my pass to the VIP area--which featured arobust open bar, naturally. The guest of honor: Hillary Clinton,who has expertly cultivated close ties to New York's powerful Irishcommunity. (When I interviewed Clinton a few days later for aseparate article, I sought to bond with her over our favored statusamong the Irish; the effect passed quickly.) With bagpipes blaringnearby, however, I felt like an imposter mingling amid moreauthentic members of my clan: redheads with fierce green eyes;jolly men with white hair and ruddy cheeks; men wearing noblepolice and fire department uniforms. I think they sensed I didn'tbelong there. But at least no one called me Mick. d