The Narrowback

Bill Reilly, as did many other lads of his age in the 1950s, posed in an itinerant photographer's cowboy gear aboard a pony in front
of a North Wayne Avenue apartment building, a long way from the Wild West.

By Bill Reilly
October / November 2000

I can’t remember when I first heard it, but my mother told me I was called a “narrowback” because it was slang for an Irish person born in the United States. When asked why a “narrowback?” she said, “I guess because narrowbacks are not as big and strong as the Irish who come over.”

“Narrowback” is defined in Bernard Share’s Slanguage – A Dictionary of Irish Slang (Gill & Macmillan, Dublin, 1997) as an American born of Irish parentage, “especially one who returns to Ireland to live.” Ma was a bit premature there, since I haven’t moved back, yet, but I have certainly spent a lot of time on the fair isle.

My fondest memories of growing up in Chicago are of weddings and benefit dances. Usually there was an “American” band to play the pop and standards of the ’40s and ’50s, and an Irish céilí band to play old-time waltzes and sets such as “The Walls of Limerick” and “The Rakes of Mallow.” “The Siege of Venice” was my all-time favorite although for the longest time I didn’t understand why it was called an Irish dance. I finally figured out it was not about an invasion of Italy but “The Siege of Ennis,” in County Clare. Ma’s favorite was “The Stack of Barley,” where the women partnered each other and danced in a circle around the room.

At the age of seven I was dragged once a week to Pat Roach for step-dancing lessons in the back dance hall of the Irish Hill on Devon Avenue on the North Side, later Connolly’s Tap.

We were given 75 cents to pay Pat, who lugged a portable record player with him from lesson site to lesson site. I didn’t practice too much, regrettably I must confess, but I was good enough to dance the jig and the reel with Patsy Ann O’Toole every St. Patrick’s Day on the stage in grammar school. That’s when Tommy Stanton would belt out a great rendition of “Patsy Fagan.”

The dancing lessons later got me a few cheers at parties from Africa to Asia when I was asked, or, beer-emboldened, would volunteer: “Here, I’ll show how it is really done: First, hands not in the air but at the side…and, as Pat would say, ‘Kick high, higher.'”

Saturday morning rituals at home included listening to the Jack Haggerty Irish Program, a man with whom I became friendly in later years. There always seemed to be a benefit, “Irish insurance,” the process was dubbed, coming up because of some construction or traffic accident, and Jack always had time to plug them on air.

My mother, Mary Gibbons from Glenisland, Castlebar, County Mayo, taught me to “wheel” on the lino, between the stove and the fridge, where the radio was perched.

Practically everybody in our neighborhood, St. Gertrude’s Parish, was Irish – pastor, priests and nuns, and most congregants.

Walking home from Sunday Mass one summer Sunday my godmother, my mother’s identical twin, Ellen, remarked, “Aren’t we lucky to be Irish?” “Don’t other people feel the same way about themselves?” I remember asking. She agreed that they probably did, but she couldn’t imagine them being as happy about it as the Irish.

At that time most of the Irish lived on the South Side of Chicago. We were in an enclave of North Side Irish, living up the ever-so-slight hill that ran from the nearby lakefront to where Ashland, Clark, and Devon converged. It was here that the streetcar barns, where many an Irishman worked, stood.

The local pub was called the Irish Hill or “The Hill.” It was described in a book on Chicago as a “sliver of a bar,” and was adorned with pictures of President John Kennedy, Mayor Richard J. Daley and other, mostly Irish, local politicians.

If you needed anything done in the 1960s and ’70s you just went to the Hill, where precinct captains frequently met. Galwaymen Mike Connolly and Eddie Duffy, the owners, were always helping people out whether it was with home improvements or a “fix-it” job. In the North Side all pitched in to help each other.

In the 1950s, frequently on Sundays and especially when my father, George James Reilly, a Wisconsin narrowback with Leitrim roots, was working on the railroad, Ma would have a few “new” Irish over for dinners and frequently a melodeon was brought out for a few tunes. And, of course, I was made to dance a step. My three younger brothers, Robert Emmet, George Kevin, and John Patrick, were spared the dancing.

It wasn’t until I transferred to a distant, public high school from a nearby Catholic one, to study music that I came across a real cross-section of America – kids whose folks were born in America and others who came from all over Europe. I still was called an Irishman, or “Turkey” which was derogatory slang for Irish in Chicago.

I always thought of myself as Irish. In the schools I attended, every year it asked for nationality on some kind of form and I always put “Irish.” That’s what I was taught and no one in any school told me otherwise.

Is it any wonder that when I went to apply for my passport to go to Ireland I submitted the application and put down Irish as my nationality? A very kindly, gray-haired woman looked at my American birth certificate, handed me a fresh form and politely told me to put down that I was a citizen of the U.S.A.

I still wonder why a hardened civil servant was so gracious. Perhaps she was a “narrowback” too. ♦

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