||Dec 8 2001
The book is a memoir covering 1940 to 1970, and focuses on an Irish American family
and the conflict between old and new worlds.
Barnes & Noble.com
This book is available in a Kindle edition.
Corrigan:the Wrong Side of the Tracks
Irish, and on the wrong side of Market
Corrigan's sweeping memoir set in '60s San Francisco
Reviewed by Gerald Nicosia Sunday, February 16, 2003
Confessions of a Shanty Irishman
By Michael Corrigan
Someone ought to pass a law against the Irish writing so well. In the past century they've trumped all the categories: Yeats in poetry, Shaw in drama, Joyce in fiction. A few years ago, Frank McCourt won the Pulitzer Prize for his riveting tale of growing up dirt-poor in Ireland. Now Michael Corrigan proves that the American Irish have their own magical way with words in his spellbinding memoir of growing up on the wrong side of Market Street in San Francisco, "Confessions of a Shanty Irishman."
Born in 1942 to a first-generation, dyed-in-the-wool Catholic Irish American family, Corrigan came of age in the late 1950s and early 1960s, at a time when rebellion and counterculture were making their first powerful stir, with the likes of James Dean, Marlon Brando, Elvis Presley, Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, and a little later, of course, the whole radical movement against the Vietnam War.
At St. Ignatius, a Jesuit high school, Corrigan's own subversive bent came near to getting him kicked out (his science project demonstrated a student getting electrocuted in a miniature electric chair). Then, torn between his desires to become a writer and an actor, he ended up at San Francisco State just in time for the riotous student strikes of the late '60s.
But the secularization of a good Irish Catholic boy under the too-strong temptations of the later 20th century is just the bare bones of what "Confessions of a Shanty Irishman" is about. Like all great Irish literature, this book is about death and family, what holds people together and what pulls them apart.
In pursuit of travel, glamour and adventure, Corrigan's mother, Fran, abandoned the family when he was a baby, and he didn't see her again till he was 8. His father, Tom, though devoted both to the church and to his mail carrier job, was a dreamer who never stopped imagining that he could have outswum Johnny Weissmuller in the Olympics. His fantasies rose from a bottle of Bushmill's. A serious alcoholic, he was incapable of doing much more parenting than offering his son a few choice platitudes in his more sober moments. As a result, Corrigan was raised by his Old World paternal Irish grandparents, Thomas and Agnes, hearing stories of the Easter Rebellion and Sinn Fein rebel martyrs such as James Connolly, in a little house across from Dolores Park.
Corrigan, like so many of the great Irish literary protagonists before him - - including the most famous of all, Stephen Daedalus -- grows up with what might best be termed a confused love of family. That there is tremendous strength, resilience and capacity for hard work in these people is undeniable; they have pulled themselves up into middle-class life from almost nothing. His grandfather, for one, brags of saving Enrico Caruso's life in the great 1906 earthquake and later working around the clock to repave Market Street. Moreover, their loyalty to family is absolutely unbreakable.
One of the great scenes in Corrigan's "Confessions" is of a Christmas dinner, fully the equal of Dylan Thomas' classic "A Child's Christmas in Wales" for its humor tinged with sadness at human frailty and its blatant nostalgia for a good time that never really was good, except for the innocence that perceived it as such. At this annual ritual, young Corrigan watched while his handsome grandfather and father tried to outdo each other with wit and song, his Protestant Aunt Shirley kept her sympathies to herself and his grandmother and spinster Aunt Kate struggled to keep everyone suitably chaste and reverent:
"Christmas was the one time Agnes gave orders.
" 'Remember, this is the birthday of Our Lord. No talk about politics or religion.'
" 'Of course. You should've heard the sermon today,' said Father. 'Warning us about a Swedish art film.'
" 'I don't want to miss it,' said Emmett with a wink.
" 'I guess there's a lot of female nudity.'
" 'For God's sake,' said Kate, shocked. 'Today is Christmas.'
" 'I don't like films,' Grandfather said, wearing his sweater vest. He said 'fillems' for 'films.' 'But should the church be after telling us what movies to see?'
"Aunt Kate sipped her tea. Uncle Pete spoke up: 'In Montana, the priests tell us how to vote.'
" 'That violates separation of church and state,' said Emmett, cupping his wine in one hand.
" 'They have a right to warn us,' said Kate. 'It's their mission in life. Never disagree with our priests. Never!' "
Though they may disagree with one another, their sense of right and wrong is carved in stone, and their courage in the face of injustice sets an example for Corrigan for the rest of his life. He relates an incident where his grandfather, well over 60 years old, confronts two teenage hooligans who are knocking out the streetlights around Dolores Park in preparation to rob the trolley. When the hooligans refuse his demand that they "skedaddle," Thomas chases them off with his Irish shillelagh, yelling, "Cowards!" at their fleeing behinds.
Yet Corrigan shows that the Irish are also, perhaps more than most people, vulnerable to an incredibly large array of demons. They hate just about everyone who's non-Irish, including the Italians, and the blacks. Corrigan's early love affair with a Jewish girl is deterred by both the nuns, who call Jews "Christ killers," and his own family members, who teach him that " 'Jew' is both a noun and a verb. A clever customer would 'Jew down' a salesman." Misogyny seems never far from an Irishman's tongue either. "They're all bitches," says a gunman in Molloy's Tavern, explaining why he had to kill the man who fooled around with his woman.
Thanks perhaps to the Aquarian love he grows up amid, Corrigan escapes this pervasive prejudice, but his own battles with the "black mood" and demon whiskey occupy a large part of the book, as do his endless obsessions with women, beginning with his lustful fantasies about the beautiful young nun Sister Ann Marie and ending with a torrid afternoon at the baths with a busty, oversexed IRA spitfire named Dervla.
There are endless delights in "Confessions of a Shanty Irishman," not the least of which are hilarious and poignant thumbnail portraits of some of San Francisco's more notorious Irish sons and daughters, such as the combat journalist Richard Boyle, whose life story was told in Oliver Stone's film "Salvador" and whom Corrigan knew from their wayward days at Mission Dolores Grammar School.
Above all, Corrigan shows us the Irish as a people who can laugh at their own failings -- "The difference between an Irish wedding and an Irish funeral is one less drunk," his father tells him -- but also a people with an inalienable sense of their own destiny. After telling young Corrigan of their great literary champion, James Joyce, his Uncle Emmett urges him to take his place in the lineage: "You like to read. Maybe you can be the serious writer." Corrigan makes clear that their willingness to grasp that destiny is the key to their once and future greatness.
Gerald Nicosia is the author of "Memory Babe: A Critical Biography of Jack Kerouac."
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Reader Reviews for "Confessions of a Shanty Irishman"
|Reviewed by Michael Corrigan
|Reviewed by Laurel Johnson
|Michael Corrigan has a gift to share. From the erin green covers to the morsels of his memories within them, the author serves himself up to the reader like a meat and potatoes stew. Alternately dark with pathos, then light with sudden bursts of humor, this story lives. The author's way with words is purely Irish, through and through.
His San Francisco home is shared by an old country grandfather who worked hard and proud to make America his home; a calm and sensible grandmother who unfailingly nurtures all three men she loves; and a handsome father who works and pays the bills despite his losing battle with the demon drink. Moving in and out of the Michael's life are kinfolk who are all apples off the same Irish tree, each with their own personality and contribution to the author's childhood memories. A mother who abandoned her Irish Catholic husband and infant in search of fun is an occasional visitor, a mystery throughout the author's life.
Mr. Corrigan cooks up a fine, rich broth with his memories. I was intrigued by his family, his lifelong friends, the nuns who taught him as a child, and the priests who took him from innocent altar boy to a manhood full of doubt about his faith. A genetic love of drink plagues him from early on. His struggle with the Irish Catholic faith is honestly relayed through thoughts or spoken words. And his appreciation of the fair sex is sometimes humorous or sad. But it was the author's relationship with his father that, for me at least, put the shine on this novel. His father dies young, a dissipated remnant of the once darkly handsome charismatic man who raised his son without a mother. The author's memory of that day haunts me:
"The old days of Irish wakes with ice lifted off the corpse for drinks had passed.
Now it was only a rosary, and relatives listened to the priest reciting before the open coffin. I wondered if the Vikings weren't right to put the body on a ship and riddle the vessel with fire arrows, rather than lay the body out for morbid viewing.
I couldn't accept that plastic-looking empty husk as my father. Thomas. It was too much of a contradiction, a furious denial of what he had been in life. Where was the person who took the wheel of his brother's boat and waved at the home movie lens? When would we hear that warm baritone again with its Bing Crosby resonance?"
Confessions of a Shanty Irishman is selling well and finding an audience. Deservedly so. Michael Corrigan's voice is strong, resonant. I like to think he inherited that resonant voice from his father, and that somewhere in the afterlife, Thomas Corrigan is proud.