I actually knew an Irishman who painted houses.
No, it wasn’t Frankie Sheeran.
It was my Uncle Eddie.
Don’t let his last name, Strubeck, fool you. His dad’s roots may have been in Germany, but his mom was “as Irish as Paddy’s pig,” as the saying goes, and Uncle Eddie was just like her.
He was a proud, loyal American who served his country in the U.S. Army, but Uncle Eddie considered himself an Irishman first. Or at least an Irish-American. And, yes, as a young man he earned his living painting houses.
Uncle Eddie was an artist — he could draw anything. He was never able to turn that into a career, but with a six-inch paint brush in his hand, his talent was legendary. He dazzled everyone with his neatness and his speed. The guy could paint.
He also had no fear of heights, which meant he painted a good deal of church steeples around Greater Pittston.
In retirement, Uncle Eddie continued to paint. If you needed a job done, he’d be there first thing the next morning. And he wouldn’t take a dime for his troubles. But he had one stipulation: it had to be painted green. That was the Irish in him. And why my mom’s house had a green door. And a green railing. So did uncle Eddie’s. And several others. He’d paint your driveway green if you let him.
With St. Patrick’s Day two days away, Uncle Eddie is on my mind. Along with a host of other Irishmen who had an influence on me. Mostly by making me laugh.
Uncle Eddie had a million stupid jokes — “Uncle Eddie Jokes” we’d call them — like, “Did I ever tell you about the time I fell off the horse? It was about 2:30.” But he also had a bunch of true stories about growing up in a poor family with no dad. Uncle Eddie was in grade school when his dad died. It was on St. Patrick’s Day, by the way, in 1936.
My favorite Uncle Eddie story is this:
His mom, my grandmother, was a strict Irish-Catholic and when she found out Uncle Eddie and his friend had stolen apples from the tree next door, she marched him right to the priest to confess his sin. Sensing an opportunity to teach little Eddie a biblical lesson, the priest asked him, “And who, young man, stole the first apple?”
“Ned Dooner,” Uncle Eddie said.
Not only did I grow up in an Irish household, but when I got my first newspaper job, I was up to my ears in Irishmen, and women. In addition to the Watsons, who owned the place, there was a Cosgrove, and a Feeney, and a Corcoran, and a Carmody, and a McAndrew, whose maiden name was Cawley, and a Moran, and a Gelb, who grew up a McKeon in the Irish hotbed of West Avoca. The guy who got me the job was a Gilmartin, who had replaced an O’Malley, who had replaced a Linskey.
They were all “full of the devil” (another Irish expression) and, like Uncle Eddie, loved to laugh.
William A. Watson Jr., my immediate boss at the paper who insisted from day one I call him by his nickname “Pidge,” had a self-deprecating manner to balance his Irish pride. He often told this story, which he included in his speech the night he was named Friendly Sons of St. Patrick Man of the Year.
“There’s a little village in Ireland,” Pidge began, “where every St. Patrick’s Day the most hen-pecked husband in the town must ride sitting backwards on a donkey down the main street. And every, single year,” he continued, “it’s the same guy. Know why? Because Pidge Watson lives in America.”
Richard B. “Dick” Cosgrove, career newspaper guy, seemed to have an Irish saying for every day of the year. Here’s one that comes to mind. It is often called an Irish blessing. Other times, an Irish curse.
May those who love us love us.
And those that don’t love us?
May God turn their hearts.
And if he doesn’t turn their hearts,
May he turn their ankles,
So we’ll know them by their limp.
Then there’s James “Spot” O’Donnell, newspaper pressman and a 365-day-a-year Irishman if ever there were one. I told the following Spot story in a blog last week but it bears repeating.
The O’Donnells were hosting a visitor from Ireland, he of devilishly good looks and more than his share of Irish charm, at their home at Harveys Lake. “He had a way with the ladies,” is how Spot put it.
Well, one evening at Bill’s Tavern, Spot’s favorite local watering hole, one woman in particular was falling all over herself making a play for the visiting Irishman.
“Did you ever visit the Blarney Stone?” she asked at one point.
“I have,” the Irishman answered.
“Is it true what they say about the Blarney Stone?” she went on.
“And what,” he answered, “might that be?”
“That if you kiss the Blarney Stone, you will be blessed with the gift of gab and abundant good luck?”
“Indeed,” he answered, “that’s what I’ve heard said.”
“And,” she continued, “is it true that if you kiss someone who kissed the Blarney Stone you will be blessed as well?”
“Aye, that is what they say.”
“Then may I inquire,” she pressed on, “if you, yourself, have ever kissed the Blarney Stone?”
He knew the answer she sought but was not about to oblige. “I’m afraid not, my dear lady,” he said instead. “But I did sit on it once.”
All four of these good Irishmen are gone. But not when March 17 rolls around. They’ll be with me all day.
Ed Ackerman writes The Optimist every week. Look for his blogs during the week at pittstonprogress.com.