An Irishman Named English
T.J. English, Contibutor
October / November 2005
Have you ever met an Irishman named English?
Well, you have now.
I open with this seemingly insignificant detail for one simple reason: All my life I’ve been taking a ribbing for being a proud Irish-American named English. Some people have a hard time believing that the name has Hibernian roots. The implication is that with a name like that a person would have to be…well, English. So I tell them, “Look. Have you ever come across an African American named White? Or a Southern cracker named Black? You probably have. It’s the same way with English.”
For the record: The name is most often found in County Tipperary — where my ancestors come from — and in dirty old Limerick Town. Like many Irish names, it has Norman origins but has been fully hibernicized in the eight centuries since the Norman Conquest of Ireland in the 12th century. I will spare you the listing of all the prominent poets, political figures, sports stars and outlaws who carried the name. Let it suffice to say that the name English is, in the words of the famously sodden poet and playwright Brendan Behan, “as Irish as Paddy’s pig.”
So get used to it.
I was born and raised in Tacoma, Washington, far from the Irish enclaves of New York, Chicago and Boston, but all my life I’ve been surrounded by Irish-Americans. Starting with my immediate family (two parents and nine brothers and sisters), and through my formal education in Catholic grade school, high school, and at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, Irish faces were everywhere — especially at school. Some people think that the Irish in America passed along their cultural traditions through circumscribed neighborhoods, but that is only partly true (and less true now than ever before). Mostly, it was the Catholic school system that made it possible for Irish-Americans to disseminate their cultural identity and groom assorted and selected ruffians to go forth and — theoretically speaking — change the world for the better. When I meet an Irish-American who is a product of the Catholic school system, whether they are from Washington, California, Florida or South Boston, I can usually tell.
I was thinking of this recently while listening to an old 1972 George Carlin album entitled Class Clown. I was probably fifteen or sixteen years old when I first heard this record. Up until Carlin came along, we didn’t know you could make fun of nuns and priests without being struck down by lightning. But here was Georgie Boy, himself the product of a progressive Catholic grade school in “White Harlem,” telling humorous stories about mortal versus venial sins, confession, purgatory, heaven, hell, and a whole host of matters relating to the sometimes arbitrary rulings and regulations of the Holy Catholic Church (the no-meat-on-Friday rule had been done away with, for example, but, mused Carlin, “I’ll bet there are still people in hell doing time on a meat rap”).
Carlin’s humor was an eye-opener for me. For the first time I was introduced to a way by which you could be of the culture and still make fun of or be irreverent about the culture. Carlin was an Irish working-class kid like myself and many of my friends and classmates, which put him in a unique position: He could chastise Irish Catholicism because he had experienced it from the inside. I identified with Carlin’s point of view. For me, it represented an Irish Catholic identity that I could embrace, as opposed to what seemed like an overly pious and severe world view promulgated by my parents and their generation.
There was another comic routine on the Class Clown album that had a major impact on me; it was called “I Used to Be Irish Catholic.” The opening salvo of this monologue goes as follows: “I used to be Irish Catholic. Now I’m an American. You grow.”
Again, I knew intuitively where Carlin was coming from. At the time, many of the most prominent Irish Catholic social figures in the U.S. were from an earlier generation, and they seemed to represent an ultraconservative, intolerant point of view. There was Bull Connor, the bigoted Southern sheriff who unleashed the dogs on civil rights marchers in Alabama; Mayor Richard J. Daly, who unleashed the Chicago police on anti-war protestors; Louise Day Hicks in South Boston, who fanned the flames of racial bigotry during “the busing crisis.” Seemingly everywhere you turned there was an Irish face from the 1950s generation on the front lines fighting against change and social justice.
For Carlin, it was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Along with many other second, third and fourth-generation Irish-Americans, he left his ethnic identity behind. He became an “American.”
For me, it had the opposite effect. In the wake of the turbulent 1970s, I began a journey into the heart of my ethnic heritage that changed my life and continues to shape its direction today.
That journey began in earnest when I first moved to New York City. In transplanting myself from the more ethnically homogenized West Coast to the Northeast, I was traveling back to the tribal village. Though I didn’t know it at the time, my great-grandfather, Daniel O’Connell English, the child of recently arrived potato famine immigrants, had been born in New York City in 1847. Maybe that had something to do with the strong pull I felt all throughout my childhood to come to New York. And when I arrived in 1981 at the age of twenty-three, I felt an eerie sensation, as though I had been here before and was meant to be here at the historical epicenter of the Irish-American experience.
For the first time in my life I felt as though I were a true member of the tribe. On the streets of New York and in various jobs (bartender, porter, taxi driver) I was identified as being Irish or, more precisely, a “mick” — not in the ephemeral sense of something you might choose to adopt, but as something stamped on your face, something you are going to be identified by whether you want to be or not. Personally, I welcomed the sense of identity. Maybe it had something to do with the fact that, as I would later find out, I was now walking the same streets as my great-grandfather. Or maybe it had to do with being seen as something other than just another non-ethnic, generic “white person” in America. Whatever the reason, whenever somebody called me a “mick,” invariably I smiled. It reminded me of something my father John Patrick English told me as a kid: “If anyone ever calls you a mick, even though they might mean it as a putdown, you should be proud; you should wear it as a badge of distinction.”
As providence would have it, my reconnection with a vibrant historical identity was more than just personal. In my chosen profession as a journalist and writer, I was privileged to have the opportunity to explore and write about myriad aspects of Irish-Americana as a reporter for this magazine. Throughout the late 1980s, I covered the Irish-American beat. I traveled to Chicago, Boston and other key precincts where the Irish in America made their mark. I researched and wrote about the local history, interviewed notable Irish-American figures in the fields of entertainment, sports and politics (including Mayor Daly’s son, Richard M., the current boss of Chicago), and became enthralled by the diversity of the Irish-American experience, with its right-wing reactionaries, left-wing agitators and everything in between.
It was while writing for Irish America that I first came across the story of the Westies, the ultra-violent 1970s-80s gang out of Hell’s Kitchen in New York City that became the basis of my first non-fiction book. Most people surmise that my interest in the Westies comes from a fascination with the world of crime, a subject with which I have now become identified (I’ve published two subsequent non-fiction crime books). Mostly, though, for me that book was a chance to explore my working-class roots.
Back in Tacoma, one of my uncles owned and operated a small steel mill where my brothers and I worked during the summers to pay for our college educations. The modest sized factory building for J.D. English Steel was a longtime fixture on the Tacoma waterfront. It was there that I first experienced the unique camaraderie and male working-class mentality that would become a key to understanding the world of the Westies and other tough, insular Irish-American environments I have written about.
Some might say that it is a long way from the Tacoma waterfront to the saloons of Hell’s Kitchen, but for me it has been a personal and professional journey that all fits together: the Irish roots, Catholic school education, irreverent comedy of George Carlin, streets of New York, Irish-American journalism, gangsters, priests and politicians. Most of my adult life has been devoted to these and other aspects of Irish-Americana, figuring out how they interrelate and how they affect me personally.
Why have I spent so much time and energy exploring my own ethnic heritage? I think it has to do with my great-grandfather and the legacy of the Potato Famine, but others in my family have suggested otherwise. They think I am merely overcompensating for being an Irishman named English.
Which brings me to a final thought: In your travels, in the Old Country or here in the U.S., if you should come across an Irish lad or lass with the surname of English, please give them a hug ♦
T.J. English is the author of Paddy Whacked: The Untold Story of the Irish American Gangster (ReganBooks), due out in paperback in March 2006.