WHAT MAKES IR­ISH EYES SMILE

Speak­ing lightly of death is just tra­di­tion for many

Chicago Sun-Times - - NEWS - BY MAU­REEN O’DON­NELL Staff Re­porter/mod­on­[email protected]­times.com

“It’s not just Ir­ish us­ing it. . . . It’s al­most kind of a pri­vate, street-smart com­ment among con­fi­dants,” TIM SA­MUEL­SON, Chicago cul­tural his­to­rian

The Ir­ish Scratch Sheet. The Ir­ish Rac­ing Form. The Ir­ish Sports Pages.

Some­times, they’re even called Ir­ish Comics.

The catch­phrases have noth­ing to do with race­tracks. In­stead, they re­fer to death no­tices, or obit­u­ar­ies, in cities with large Ir­ish-Amer­i­can pop­u­la­tions.

At St. Pa­trick’s Day, it seems fit­ting to check out the ori­gin of the ex­pres­sions. Ir­ish-born pro­fes­sors say they are never heard in Ire­land. They’re “Ir­ish-Amer­i­can­isms” that use black hu­mor to con­vey a wry ac­cep­tance of death — and cel­e­bra­tion at be­ing freed from worldly care.

“I’ve heard it called the Ir­ish Rac­ing Form,” said Thomas Lynch, an un­der­taker, poet and writer based near Detroit, in Mil­ford, Mich.

“The Ir­ish see a good laugh and a good cry the way it ought to be seen,” Lynch said. “It uses the same fa­cial mus­cles.”

Cleve­land crime nov­el­ist Les Roberts penned “The Ir­ish Sports Pages,” fea­tur­ing his cre­ation, Slove­nian pri­vate eye Mi­lan Ja­covich. “Hear­ing ‘ the Ir­ish Sports Pages,’ in Cleve­land, it’s what in­spired me to write the book,” he said.

“I’ve heard it of­ten, in the con­text of news­rooms; newswrit­ers; among the po­lice,” said Tim Sa­muel­son, Chicago cul­tural his­to­rian. “It’s not just Ir­ish us­ing it. . . .It’s al­most kind of a pri­vate, street-smart com­ment among con­fi­dants.”

“I’ve heard lots of peo­ple use it, from dif­fer­ent eth­nic­i­ties and re­li­gious and so­cial back­grounds,” said Eric Her­man, a former Sun-Times re­porter who has worked among pols in county government. He is man­ag­ing di­rec­tor of ASGK Pub­lic Strate­gies. When he worked at the New York Daily News, a fel­low jour­nal­ist used to mail obit­u­ar­ies to his re­tired dad in Florida.

“He wrote on the out­side of the en­ve­lope, ‘Ir­ish Sports Pages,’ ’’ Her­man said.

It’s an Ir­ish tra­di­tion to add lev­ity to the topic of death, said two Ir­ish na­tives, Andy Wil­son, a pro­fes­sor of Ir­ish His­tory at Loy­ola Univer­sity, and Diar­muid O Gi­ol­lain, a pro­fes­sor of Ir­ish lan­guage and lit­er­a­ture at Notre Dame Univer­sity.

“I think the Ir­ish joke, them­selves,” said Larry McCaf­frey, pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus of his­tory at Loy­ola. “And I think ev­ery­body else picked up on it.”

“My fa­ther al­ways read the obit­u­ar­ies first — he used to say to see if he was still alive,” said Pa­tri­cia Harty, ed­i­tor-in-chief of Ir­ish Amer­ica mag­a­zine.

“But really, it was to see if he had a party to go to.”

“There is an Ir­ish ob­ses­sion with know­ing who died,” said O Gi­ol­lain. It could be a char­ac­ter­is­tic handed down from Ire­land’s close ru­ral farm com­mu­ni­ties, ac­cord­ing to O Gi­ol­lain and McCaf­frey.

Chicago his­to­rian Ellen Sk­er­rett re­calls her par­ents dis­cussing “who died” af­ter read­ing the death no­tices. “Death was al­ways just a part of life, and as chil­dren we went to many wakes.”

In Ire­land, when obit­u­ar­ies are read on the ra­dio, “their lis­ten­er­ship spikes,” said Notre Dame’s Pro­fes­sor Kevin Whe­lan, who is based in Dublin’s O’Con­nell House.

“The death no­tices are im­por­tant, be­cause peo­ple al­most do want to keep score, and to see if there is some­body’s [ funeral] we should be go­ing to.”

“The Ir­ish see a good laugh and a good cry the way it ought to be seen. It uses the same fa­cial mus­cles.” “I think the Ir­ish joke, them­selves. And I think ev­ery­body else picked up on it.”

DIAR­MAID O GI­OL­LAIN (RIGHT)

THOMAS LYNCH (above) “My fa­ther al­ways read the obit­u­ar­ies first —he used to say to see if he was still alive. But really, it was to see if he had a party to go to.”

PA­TRI­CIA HARTY (LEFT)

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