Some years ago in a long-forgotten novel, I came across the term “Shanty Irish”. It referred to a certain discomfort one might have in the presence of wealth. Shanty Irish refers to those Irish immigrants who, in Ireland or in the States, lived in shanties. Up near Honesdale PA on a back road I once saw such a shanty. It was my great grandfather’s house upon his arrival here from Ireland. Similarly, in Scranton my roots lie in an area of Scranton once known as The Patch. This was an area where coal miners and their families lived. My grandfather was The Patch’s barber. He and two of my uncles were volunteer firemen in the Patch.
I was not poor growing up. But we were not rich either. I suppose we were lower middle class. All my relatives were blue collar workers. A fireman. A coal miner. A truck driver. My father worked as a claims adjuster at a trucking company. Before that, among other things, he had delivered milk. My other grandfather worked for the railroad. I believe there was only one friend who might have been “rich”.
A right of passage in that culture was not Confirmation or Bar Mitzvah. It was being allowed to sit with the men and drink. That happened to me at my cousin’s wedding. My uncle Gaddy (the fireman) asked me “Richie, go get me a whiskey.” Then he paused and said “Get yourself something to drink too.” And he didn’t mean soda! It was a big deal when I sat with my uncle and my father drinking. It meant they viewed me as a man.
I grew up with an expectation that I would work during summers and Christmas. As such, I had jobs working in a paint factory, working in a plastics factory, selling clothes (style and taste in clothing was definitely not one of my strengths!), working in a bar, and my personal favorite, being a mailman.
With these roots, I was never comfortable around people of wealth. Actually, my discomfort was around people who grew up wealthy. Years ago, my secretary came to me and said “There’s an old man out there who wants to talk to you. He says he’s a millionaire and is starting a new series of stores here in El Paso. I went to say hello and encountered an older man in shirtsleeves. He was down-to-earth and very personable. He said he ran a national string of stores and was starting a new one in El Paso. He made a point to tell me that he believed in doing the hard work himself and that’s why he was going around to businesses himself. The store he was promoting was Sam’s Club. His name was Sam Walton.
Here in El Paso I’ve known people of wealth with whom I am at ease. They are all people of “shanty Irish”-type backgrounds. Locally, their roots are not in coal towns but in Segundo Barrio, a poor part of El Paso. They rose up from the streets and, through effort and courage, became successful. Lawyers. Doctors. Architects. To a person, they have not forgotten their barrio roots and are not ashamed of those roots.
In time, I too have become proud of my Shanty Irish roots. Those roots and those people taught me the importance of family and providing for one’s family. They taught me the value of hard work. They taught me the power of dreams, which for some ranged from getting out of the mines and into a better job to sending one’s children to college. They did not feel entitled in any way and to a person had a great sense of gratitude for whatever they were able to earn.
I am grateful to them all, those men and women of simple background who worked hard and helped me get to where I am. I can now say with pride “Yes, I’m Shanty Irish from The Patch!”
Reflection: Do you have any types of experience similar to my Shanty Irish journey?
I think that the alcohol consumption is still a rite of passage. I am as close to a teetotaler as it gets but I do use wine for cooking. I asked my son to pick up some red wine at the grocery store for me and he pointed out that he was not yet 21. But in my mind, at 20, I was thinking of him as a man. It was like, “You are a man. You can purchase this”. I keep on forgetting that the laws have changed since I was his age.
As for poverty and wealth, well, that is a tricky one. I have spent nights in the tenement housing in El Paso. Even though I had a nice house, I felt often felt more loved in the tenement. I didn’t have it in my house. There are many kinds of poverty.
As for growing up with inherited wealth (as opposed to earning it), it depends upon the person. My husband grew up with the proverbial silver spoon in his mouth. He had the private schools, the country clubs, the fancy cars. But during the decades that I have been married to him he has risen at 04:00 AM and returned at 8:00 PM each day but is paid only for eight hours. What does he do with the rest of the time? He his “working to give people a measure of justice” as he puts it. I hope that you are right. That there is a special place in heaven for those who are married to Saints.