As far as I know, my father had only one friend who was not Irish-American. George Schmoke was an African-American. Both men lived with their wives and kids in subsidized housing, a complex whose long rectangular brick buildings cascaded down to the bank of the Taunton River.
A few years after they escaped the project, they agreed to trade their modest houses in a deal later vetoed by my mother, who refused to leave the neighborhood in which she was raised.
But other than George, my father’s friends were Russell O’Brien, Gene O’Neil, Red Guinin, Andy Smith, Leo Ready and a host of others who shared an Irish heritage. Their parents had migrated to Fall River, Mass., where mill jobs were waiting on the Quequechan (Quick-a-shan) River, a body of water once clean enough to drink, full enough to irrigate crops and attract game, and hardy enough to support generations of Wampanoag.
The natives named the river “Quequechan,” which means “falling water,” because of its steep drop into the Taunton River. That it fell so fast and hard became a problem for the tribe as the settlers built a mill on its shore, and then built another and another and another.
If the falling river was one factor responsible for both the sustenance and the decimation of the Wampanoag culture, it simultaneously contributed to the survival and destruction of the Irish-American subculture.
The cotton mills provided jobs and food, but they were “sweatshops,” hot and humid by design, to better keep the thread from breaking. Ubiquitous dust particles filled workers’ lungs. The cavernous, granite buildings were so noisy that communication was sometimes possible only through a primitive sign language.
The looms and the spinning machines in these factories weren’t like the bows and arrows of the Wampanoag, or the axes of the first settlers, or the rudimentary farm implements back in Ireland. Simple tools allowed their users to communicate with each other and to control the pace of their work; they empowered them to build a social world as they produced a material one. In the mills, however, the machines ruled the workers, telling them how fast to run, and where, and when they could take a break, all the while containing each one in his own noisy, dust-filled, invisible cage.
Life outside the mills was trying as well. By the time he was 14, my father’s two siblings and father were dead.
The successive social and spiritual upheavals on the Quequechan pushed many natives toward alcohol, and, later, many Irish-Americans closer to it than they had already been. As the grandson of an Irish immigrant who worked in those mills, I believe that the meaning of “Irish-ness” for many of us became the drink, the alcohol that allowed escape and therefore submission.
My father, Russell, Gene, Red, Andy and Leo were heavy drinkers, and it was that common trait that made them – in the eyes of my siblings and me – Irish. Before I learned to see an individual through the era’s established racial and ethnic categories, I guessed that George was not Irish, a surmise based not on his skin color, but upon his drinking patterns: he drank less, and less frequently, and never whiskey.
When I visit my father’s gravesite, St. Patrick’s Cemetery reminds me of my childhood, one in which everyone seemed Irish, where only George and a few people on the world’s periphery were not. Gravestones chiseled with Sullivan and McCauley and Burke and McCarthy and Murphy and O’Connor dominate the grounds, giving way only reluctantly to the Souzas and Barbozas of the later arriving Portuguese immigrants.
Standing by the family headstone, I can hear him – Francis Joseph Hearn – say that there are only two kinds of people in the world: the Irish and those who wish they were. He seemed to believe it. I did not. I could see the same melancholy vulnerabilities of us Irish-Americans in the sadder legacy of the Wampanoag, another powerless group whose world was ravaged along the falling water of the Quequechan.
John Hearn (email@example.com), a teacher at Jamestown Community College, is co-author of “Shade It Black: Death and After in Iraq” (Casemate, 2011).