A Touch of the Fishwife: An Irish American Poet Looks at Her Family History

I’m a late bloomer, having come to poetry at the age of forty, having come into my Irishness not long before that. Certainly, the two are connected. I’d long loved language, enough to spend childhood nights in my bedroom closet with a flashlight and the dictionary, tracing etymologies and memorizing definitions. The nature of words—as symbol on paper, as meaning, and as music—felt most fully vivified in the poems of my youth. There was Eliot and Frost, and later Cummings (when will his stock rise again?), Plath, Sexton, and Bishop. But it was Yeats’ “Solomon and the Witch” that turned on a switch inside me. I could hear in those lines the cadences of my great grandmother’s speech. Her sibilant t’s and soft-melted a’s, the dipping and swirling of her tones seemed a sensory bridge between speech and music. And Yeats’ poetry was this bridge, built to last in an antique font’s wrought iron.

I knew Yeats was Irish and that I had Irish ancestors, but they occupied a distant, unimportant, past. I was aware of the existence of many American writers and artists of Irish descent, Eugene O’Neill among them. He’d lived much of his life up the coast from me in New London, CT. But my parents had no sense of connection to other Irish Americans, famous or not. The specifics of my ethnic background were rarely discussed as I grew up in a predominantly WASP town in Connecticut. I was born with a last name that many mistake for English, and that name was replaced with a mellifluous French name (that of an adoptive father) when I entered public high school. I spent summers at a private club on the beach and took ballroom dance lessons at yet another country club, white gloves and all, as an adolescent. The Irish-American children I knew went to Catholic school dressed in somber navy uniforms. They had saint’s names, lots of siblings, and weren’t members of the country club.

Good manners and proper behavior seemed to be a priority in these families, as it was in mine. We’d battle over table manners, from how to hold the fork to how to lay it down properly on the plate once the meal was finished. We were taught proper English manners “because you never know if you’ll be invited to dine with the Queen.” There were more restrictions on the girls’ behavior than our brother’s, far more ways we might be seen as cheap or rough. Smoking a cigarette while walking down the street would make us look “like a common prostitute.” Tattoos on women were the mark of “an aging bar whore.” Unkempt hair (this was the early seventies, when hair was long, center-parted and dead flat) was “a rat’s nest.” But the admonishment we heard most often when we raised our voices was “Keep it down. You’re yelling like a fishwife.”

A fishwife! I had no idea what it was, but I liked the sound of the word. It struck me as one of only a few faint inklings, like my great grandmother’s soft t’s, that I, too, was Irish-American. And that although I, like the Beatles, might someday meet the Queen, she wasn’t my queen. When I spoke to my grandmother, born Elizabeth McGrath, about her parents, I came away with the sense that her mother, a fourth generation American, was ashamed of having a Mc at the beginning of her name. I was soon to be divorced and liked the idea of a do-over, of claiming my Irishness by taking on my grandmother’s name as I started my life as a writer. Though she never understood why I was keen to take her maiden name, my grandmother offered me her mother’s papers, telling me that her mother’s dream was to be a writer. What I found among the crumbling yellowed pages piled in a cardboard box changed my sense of who I was.