When I was growing up in the Midwest, Irish-German marriages were common, especially among Catholics. There seemed to be a general feeling that these were blessed couplings given what were perceived as complementary character traits between the two nationalities. At the risk of indulging in ethnic stereotypes, the more sentimental, even flamboyant Irish were grounded by German steadfastness and purposefulness yielding a very happy combination. Or so it was believed by those of us who issued or descended from such marriages.
Think of that feckless character in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945), Johnny Nolan (James Dunn). If he were married to a good Bavarian girl, well, things might have turned out better for him and his wife, say, if she had done the same with a nice German-American guy from Milwaukee. That poor woman! Imagine a good German boy from Stuttgart or Pennsylvania ever saying these words of Johnny: “Look, God invented time and when he invents something, there’s always plenty of it.” Talk like that, no doubt induced by consumption of spirits, must have been a trial for poor Katie Nolan (played by Dorothy McGuire) who worked as a maid.
Less common in the Midwest, though not unusual, were the kinds of “mixed marriages” the late Justice Antonin Scalia used to joke about which, like his, featured an Irish-Italian pairing. Presumably, those were more common in the Northeast — Boston, New York — like the romance at the heart of another wonderful film set in, yes, Brooklyn (2015). The young Irish girl’s first dinner with her boyfriend’s family is a hilarious scene of ethnic stereotypes confounded.
A running joke in my family involves my dear aunt, a Mullen who married a half-German Mehan, praise God. She was overjoyed to hear that her daughter, Molly, wanted to marry a fine fellow named Lou Casey. However, the fine fellow turned out to be a Lucchesi! The story is apocryphal, and the match was truly made in heaven.
It is always good to get a little distance or perspective on yourself and your tribe. And for the Irish, Justice Scalia did just that in a very interesting speech he gave on St. Patrick’s Day 1988 to the Society of the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick in New York City, his home town. “An Italian View of the Irish” is one of just many talks by the jurist on matters serious and humorous contained in Scalia Speaks. Reflections on Law, Faith, and Life Well Lived (2017) edited by his son, Christopher J. Scalia, and his former law clerk, Ed Whelan. Larry Thornberry reviewed the entire collection for TAS’s “Santa’s Book Bag” last Christmas (“A Great Jurist, Great Writer, Great Speaker, Great American,” November 30, 2017).
Undertaking to discuss “that subspecies of Homo ethnicus known as Homo hibernicus,” Justice Scalia claims to be puzzled that he had been asked to address this subject but notes that an aunt had married an O’Brien now deceased. And the Justice himself married a McCarthy, elsewhere described as his “Hibernically frank wife, Maureen.”
“I conclude that the reason you invited me, instead of the Brennan, the O’Connor or the Kennedy you fellows already have on the Supreme Court, is to get me to take my wife’s name, so that you can claim four out of nine,” said Scalia. “Tomorrow the world.”
Setting up his audience, willing foils no doubt, he noted the “appealing” qualities of the Irish he intends to describe, the first of those being bluntness. “There is very little beating about the bush with them. You always know where you stand.” Take his wife. After his confirmation to the Supreme court, she left a cartoon on the breakfast table showing a woman telling “a stern-looking, paunchy fellow (which increasingly fits my description)” that, “While you are a conservative jurist who believes in judicial restraint, you are also a louse.”
“Life is not an enterprise for sissies; the Irish know that, and they treat both themselves and others with a kind of benevolent roughness designed to prepare them for the world,” opines the distinguished jurist. He then tells a story about his first day at his Jesuit high school, Xavier in New York, then a military school, where Father Tom Matthews, an Irishman, mispronounced his first name “Antonin.” “Anyway, I shall never forget the first benevolently toughening Irish words he said to me: ‘Who’s your patron saint?’” Ok. Maybe you have to be Catholic to appreciate that one.
After bluntness, there is “constancy, in both friendships and in enmities. Justice Scalia is most certainly correct on this point. Just ask an Irishman about the British, and you get a long tirade on 700 years of oppression, displacement, religious oppression, massacre and famine. The Battle of the Boyne (1690) was, like, yesterday.
Scalia quotes what he calls “One of the most characteristic Irish prayers”:
May those who love us love us
And those that don’t love us,
May God turn their hearts.
May He turn their ankles,
So we’ll know them by their limping.
You can actually order a plaque with a version of this ditty on Amazon. Something to give to that certain someone for Christmas.
Scalia also discusses the Irish penchant for answering a question with a question under the heading of “lightheartedness. A result, no doubt of the depth of their belief in the hereafter. It is only a short time here, so there’s no use in taking it too seriously.” He once asked Chief Judge Howard Markey of the Federal Circuit, “Why does an Irishman always answer a question with a question?” Markey’s reply? “Why do you say that?”
There is another school of thought on this practice of answering a question with a question held by certain Irish patriots I have met. They claim that, after centuries of oppression by the Brits, a certain wariness crept into the Irish character leading to a disinclination to answer a question with a direct answer. I swear.
In discussing the Irish’s quickness of intellect (“I know you would be annoyed if I did not mention it…”), Scalia notes their many ways of “seeming to be knowledgeable when they are not. One of course is lying.”
“Any other group would take offense at that — but I am sure that this gathering will proudly agree that nobody in the world can tell a glorious, toweringly false tale as well as an Irishman,” claims the Justice. “An Italian lie is often more subtle and deceptive, more likely to be believed. But if it is not believed, it is seen as a sneaky, unworthy, disreputable thing. The wonderful thing about a proper Irish lie is that it does not matter if it is believed. It is such a bold, courageous, imaginative invention that, even when you see through it, you are so impressed with the quality of mind that could concoct such nonsense that it is impossible to have anything but admiration for the author. That is the great strength of the Irish lie: It does not matter whether it is believed or not.”
Scalia also observes that the Irish will avoid answering a question by suggesting, evidently with varying degrees of subtlety, its “absurdity.” In support of this proposition, he tells the story of the Irish litigator during “the days of occupation” who was arguing a weak case when the English judge asks him, “Counsel, have you never heard of the maxim ‘Ratio est legis anima. Ratione legis mutata, mutatur et lex’?”
“Sure, me lord,” said the Irishman, “in the hills of Kilkenny we talk of little else.”
There is much truth, as well as Blarney, in Justice Scalia’s Italian view of the Irish. But his unerring sense of humor and irony covers a multitude of sins.
Happy St. Patrick’s Day!
G. Tracy Mehan, III, is an adjunct professor at Antonin Scalia Law School, George Mason University, and is part Irish and German with a dash of English and French Canadian.