When money was scarce and whisky was plenty
By Jim Heffernan
My father, a lifelong Duluthian, was half Irish, a side of his ethnic heritage he favored over the other 50 percent: German. He felt the Germans were starting too many world wars in his lifetime, the first one of which involving him, but he loved his mother. She was the German.
But it seemed that the Irishness of the Heffernan family in his formative years dominated the German, and George, his name, always honored St. Patrick’s Day in some way, even a big way.
On other occasions, the Irish background could come up, too. Somehow – possibly from his 100 percent Irish father James Hugh Heffernan? – George had learned to dance the Irish jig. The Irish jig is a quick-stepping tap dance performed with a lilting and lively Irish tune.
My mother was Swedish. One hundred percent. But she could play anything on the piano (and pipe organ) from Bach to any random melody in her head. She could play an Irish ditty I know as “The Irish Washerwoman” as though she herself had come from Tipperary or Cork or OIney Cliath “in the sunny land” (where my father believed his ancestors had come from).
At times when the extended family gathered – aunts, uncles, cousins – there would be a moment when George would be inveigled to dance the Irish jig, my mother of course accompanying him on the piano playing “The Irish Washerwoman.” Always that.
A narrow strip of maple floor in our home separated the living room Oriental rug from the piano room carpet – just wide enough for George to set his feet a-tapping on a hard floor. My mother, Ruth, would sit down at the nearby piano and out would come “The Irish Washerwoman,” in very spirited fashion, as George valiantly tapped his way through the traditional Irish jig in his black dress shoes.
At some point, the words to “The Irish Washerwoman” would be sung to, or even possibly by, the mostly Swedish relatives in the room. Here are the words:
Ooooooo, I wish I was back in my Irishman’s shanty,
Where money was scarce and whisky was plenty,
A three-legged stool and a table to match,
And a door in the middle without any latch.
Three-legged stools and tables were difficult for me to picture in my young mind, all stools and tables in my experience having four legs. Must be an Irish thing, I always thought.
This weekend as St. Patrick’s day approaches, the New York Times opinion section included a column referring to the great Irish famine of the 1840s (which I assume brought my great-grandparents to Canada), and to illustrate it they ran an ancient wood engraving of a dejected Irish girl guarding her last few possessions after eviction from a thatched roof cottage for nonpayment of rent. And there, at her feet, is a toppled three-legged stool.
But no table to match, and you can’t tell of the door in the middle of the cottage has any latch. That three-legged stool, though, brought me back to warm places in my memory I seldom visit, but value so much.
Happy St. Patrick’s Day.