“Top o’ the ‘Popolis” and Other St.Patrick’s Day Memories

“Top o’ the ‘Popolis” and Other St.Patrick’s Day Memories

I can be walking on the grass, gardening, or just standing, and—bam—my eye goes right to a four-leaf clover. Since I could walk and until this very day, I see them. I don’t look for them, I just see them. And it’s no wonder, I think, for I have a bit of the green in my red blood.  My father’s mom, the person I knew as Nana Hellwege, was an O’Neal.

When I discovered that I had this pinch of the Irish, I gave way to the St. Patrick’s Day celebration.  I grew up in post-World War II suburban Long Island, less than an hour from Manhattan.  We were a great ethnic mix, all around the same age.  There were many Irish families that took March 17 seriously.  It was fun, and no matter what your ethnicity, we all wore green on St. Patrick’s Day.  My mom always made corned beef and cabbage, maybe more because my father loved it than because he was half Irish.  There was also Irish soda bread.  I still make Mom’s recipe for friends and neighbors.  Green color and caraway seeds are optional.  Anyway, allow me to share some fond memories of this special day of shamrocks, Leprechauns, and that unfindable pot of gold at the end of that-seldom-seen rainbow! 

When I was in Junior High, a bunch of us silly, giggly girls decided we needed some green hair.  I was blonde, so it was easy.  I do believe we made a concoction of lime jello and green food coloring.  Oh, it worked!  Not only on our hair but ears, cheeks, hands, necks, and clothes.  Our punishment was having to go school looking like the daughters of the Hulk or Jolly Green Giant.  Needless to say, the teenage boys had a blast busting our chops for days.  It did not wash out easily.  That was a one-time event.  Another year we did try green glitter.  Denise ended up in the emergency room because the glitter got in her eyes and made for a big problem.  Shamrocks drawn on checks with indelible green Sharpies were not a good idea either.  We were only trying to get in the spirit of things, but all we did was land in trouble. 

I was in college in 1972—a time of freedom, peace, love, and post-1960s burning o’ the bra!  Yup, you guessed it.  There was an “Erin Go Bra-Less” parade, complete with signs and lots of green toga-looking outfits. Listen, you can’t make this stuff up, especially when the drinking age in New York was only 18.  We didn’t get in trouble, but the guys lined the pathways cheering us on.  Yay for woman’s rights!  Quite the dichotomy.

New York City!  The St. Patrick’s Day Mecca.  All traffic stopped the evening of March 16 so the city could spend millions painting a green line down Fifth Avenue from Washington Square to 110th Street.  On the next day, Fifth Avenue would turn into a sea of blue.  The NYPD Emerald Society.  The NYC Police Department was made up of over 50 percent Irish officers back in the ´70s.  I think every one of them marched in that parade. 

I was a 20-something living and working in Manhattan.  St. Patrick’s Day was a single girl’s dream come true.  Work let out, and off we went to indulge ourselves in green beer and dancing with some of New York’s finest off-duty officers of the law.   Eenie, meeny, miny, moe!  Ok, I’m sorry.  Where was I?  In midtown Manhattan.  There was practically an Irish pub on every other corner.  Gleason’s, Paddy O’Doul’s, and let us not forget The Blarney Stone. On this night it was SRO, standing room only.  The wailing of bagpipes filled the streets, “Tura, Lura, Lural” resounded, while mugs of warm green beer clanked and spilled, accompanied by shouts of “Slainte.” Boy, was I embracing my Irish heritage!  Thank goodness this was only a once-a-year experience.  I’m not sure I could have survived more.  I’m not a huge beer fan.  My introduction to Irish single malt is something I will never forget.  By the wee hours of the morning, my girlfriends and I had a serious collection of “get outta jail free cards.” When the last call bell rang, at about 3 o’clock, the revelry stopped, and the bar got silent.  A rosy-cheeked, gentle man got up on a chair, stood tall, and with an angelic tenor voice sang “Danny Boy.”  You could hear a pin drop.  There were tears, hugs, and pats on the back as we reverently filed out onto Fifth Avenue to find our way home. 

By the mid-´70s I was in a serious relationship, mandating the March 17th debauchery come to a halt.  George was Greek, but his best friend was Duffy McBride!  He even looked like a Leprechaun.  He was hysterical. I adored him, and the three of us hung out all the time.  We were a triumvirate.  We lived in New Jersey.  George and I frequented this local Greek restaurant.  We coerced Duffy into meeting us there one St. Paddy’s Day.  He reluctantly agreed. The restaurant owner, Stavros, had this huge picture of the Acropolis covering an entire wall.  He allowed me to drape shiny foil shamrocks on the Parthenon.  I put green food coloring in a bottle of Ouzo and loaded a cassette of the Clancy Brothers in the player, then put on my sparkly shamrock Deely boppers.  Stavros and the other customers thought it was a hoot!  When Duff walked in, he looked around, laughed, threw up his hands, and bellowed “TOP O’ THE ´POPOLIS!  The evening turned into a big Greek/Irish party and became a tradition for some time. 

There is one last memory that I want to share.  It’s super close to my heart.  When my sister and I were little girls, my mom sang us the beautiful Irish folk song “Molly Malone.”  If you know it, sing the first verse now, to yourself.  Well, we came up with our own rendition. The three of us would perform it for friends, relatives, guests, using our best voices and proper enunciation.  We also did it just to be silly.  Mom would tie a dishtowel on her head, look at us, roll her eyes, and off we’d go!  Sing our rendition with me:

In Dublin’s fair city,

Where the girls are so pretty,

I first set my eyes,

On sweet Molly Malone,

As she wheeled her wheel barrow,

Through streets broad and narrow,

crying WATCHOUT!

It still cracks me up. I called my sister in Colorado, and we sang it and laughed!  There are so many more great St. Patrick’s Day memories I could share.  I chose my favorites.  It really doesn’t matter what your ancestral countries are, at least not to me.  The more time passes, the more we find out we’re just a mishmash of each other.  If you limit your knowledge and celebrations, you are really cheating yourself. 

My suggestion for March 17: be Irish.  Wear green and a button that says, “Kiss Me, I’m Irish.” Listen to Bing Crosby sing “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling,” eat corned beef and cabbage, then wash that single malt down with a green beer.   

“May you live as long as you want, and never want as long as you live.”

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Bonnie Hellwege

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