A St. Patrick's Day Story

by Richard Erwin

There's a thing about being Irish that takes a while to set in...I discovered.

For years, on Dictum Court, my late father and mother had their friends over almost every weekend unless they were visiting at one of the other's houses.

It was a social and informal scene, as most are in any neighborhood, where a few ethnic friends might meet. Ours included fresh baked Irish Soda Bread, lots of butter and/or jam, tea (with milk), some whiskey for those who might like a "taste," or perhaps a beer or two...and the few stalwarts who actually drank coffee in the evening!

And there were also a few things that were exceptions, I thought. One was what I believed was the worst ruckus of noise imaginable, it coming from fiddles, accordions, Irish pipes, and a guitar or two, plus a "tin whistle" here and there...and maybe a "bahdran," or Irish drum.

This was not your "average" neighborhood gathering in the Beach, I'd say.

And, too, there was Irish step and "figure" dancing.

Now, neither of these were my "cup of tea." Being the youngest in the family and having had, I thought, the good fortune of seeing the "dance teachers" teach my older brothers, with many a switch across the back of the legs when they weren't kicked high enough to please the "masters,"  I personally had no desire for such torture as that. So, I became "uncoordinated" as quickly as possible.

My father was a fiddle player, but sadly I had no "ear" for music...at all.

So, with my brothers having the good fortune, or good sense, to be able to dance as requested and taught, or sing a decent version of "The Rising of the Moon," or some other fighting Irish song, or perhaps a heartrending teary plea of a song from a broken-hearted mother to her off-to-war son...I was looked upon as a "runt" of the litter, as it were.

My good and dear father would look over at me on occasion, mumble something to a fellow musician, and shake his head as though an unbearable weight were hanging around his strong Irish neck. A "loadstone," I think my mother used as the word to describe my Da's burden of having a son with no real "Irish" talent.

It wasn't as if I was a scourge or black sheep of the family so much as it was almost a "pity" I'd have "...no real futures, the pity."

And they were almost right. Back then, the recreational and developing occupational activities of the crowd I "hung out" with as a teenager included, but were not limited to, rides in "borrowed" automobiles, spontaneous assaults on anyone who it looked like we could "take," and get away with, if so inclined, or some other form of mayhem, minor criminal activity (for Gerritsen Beach) as would prove fun...and without significant punishment.

Then the army got me, and life began to become real, mayhem hurt, seriously, responsibility for my actions became real important...and maturity set in. After the army, I got married, found a "career," and had sons of my own (no girls, sadly, on this side of the family).

Comes the moment of revelation, which we all probably have at one time or another. Mine came one night near St. Patrick's Day in 1981, as I was sitting in our local American Legion Post, listening to a Syrian descent woman, playing the Tarantella on an electric organ, at what was billed as a "St. Patrick's Day Dance."

Amazingly, after a few Manhattans (I was younger then and could actually drink the stuff), I leaned over to a crony at the bar and said..."THAT'S NOT IRISH MUSIC!!" All became silence, and faces shocked by my somewhat boisterous statement, looked my way.

I could tell...it was "put up or shut up" time!!

One of the organizers of the "dance" sauntered over to me, advised me of the amount of work it was to put together a "party" like this in a small town and that if I "...could do better...GO AHEAD!!!" I will always be grateful he didn't hit me, always.

Well, since Irish blood does in fact run through my veins, the "gauntlet" had been thrown! "OK," says I (more of a slur, actually), "I will!!" 

And, I did. The following year, with the help and cooperation of about 15 other former Irish Brooklynites I'd scoured the Finger Lakes area to find, we had the 1500-seat local theater rented, two full-page ads in the local paper, radio ads, "public service" announcements, real Irish musicians, from Ireland by way of New York, Philadelphia and other points of the compass, who played "real" TRADITIONAL IRISH MUSIC, plus several fully costumed and champion Irish Step dancers, tickets and so on...and a large amount of money committed to pay for all this, by contract...and all signed by me...the big mouth!! "Oh baby, here goes the mortgaged house," I thought.

The show went on and...here's how I found I was really IRISH!

The theater manager comes up to me, back stage, at five minutes before the curtain is to rise, with meself and an associate as miserable as two puppies in a rainstorm, lamenting the loss of my house and the probability of being tarred and feathered...to yell that he's had to LOCK THE FRONT DOOR to keep the people wanting to come in...OUT, as "...THERE'S NO MORE ROOM!!"

On my knees, I'm blessing myself and thanking Jehovah for saving my house...and then, at that very moment, the theater goes black!!! "Oh, my God, what now??!!" I'm thinking.

My associate grabs my arm, tells me in a whispered and shaking voice that the musicians requested it to happen, so they could "open" with a surprise! And with that...they do.

Fast, furious, and as real as any set piece of great Irish music could be played, they tore into it...and as wonderful a CHEER as could come from an audience began as the house lights came up, the musicians wailed, and the step dancers in magnificent costumes and dance precision, light footedly swept across the big stage!!

They loved it!!!

Since then, the greats of musical Irish tradition have performed here, including the Clancy Brothers, Frank Patterson, Mick Molonoy, Eugene O'Donnell, Eileen Ivers, Billy McComiskey, Joe Burns, Robbie O'Connell, Jerry O'Sullivan, Cherish the Ladies, and on and on.

Plus, we've hosted legendary dancers, including Donny Golden and many of his outstanding International Champion students, Jean Butler of "Riverdance" fame, The Butler Dancers from Canada, Jim Erwin (me brother), the teacher of Donny Golden and coach of Michael Flatley, star and creative choreographer of "Riverdance," and more.

But for all that, and the resulting career I developed as a four-county arts council executive director and historic theater manager (I fell in love with all the performing arts' aspects and majesty), for all of that, I felt the true blood of an IRISH MAN within my veins and heart, when a man came to me during intermission, and after all these years of me thinking I'd disappointed my father, and me hoping somehow I'd find a way to change that...with a tear in his eye as he hugged me, and the man, who was my father and had come up with my brother as a surprise, said, "I'm so very proud of you!"

Happy St. Patrick's Day!!!

Oh, and I don't drink anymore, either.

Last changed: July 27, 2003