New York Irish American Books:  New Jersey meets the Old Country in Mike Farragher’s funny collection of essays This Is Your Brain On Shamrocks

New York:  Mike’s born and bred in New Jersey, which is more New York than New York, and his columns appear in  New York’s The Irish Voice
Irish:  Irish-American, second generation. 

I’m teaching Paradise Lost in one of my classes at the moment. During the first two books, Milton thrillingly describes Hell and the flawed heroic figure of Satan, plotting to fight back against God. One of my students piped up “But doesn’t God see him? Why doesn’t he stop him?” Sure enough, in Book Three, there’s God watching events in Hell and Eden with his all-seeing eye (contrasted with Milton’s gorgeous contemplation of his own blindness), and he doesn’t stop him. He knows Man is going to fall.
Yes, God is an Irish Mammy.
That’s the conclusion, anyway, after reading Mike Farragher’s collection of his columns about “an unremarkable Irish upbringing” for The Irish Voice, This is Your Brain on Shamrocks. The “guilt sundae” of that Irish-American youth – if “Catholic school was the foundation of our guilt, our mothers were the travel agents of the guilt trip” – provides the backbone of the collection.
Farragher is affectionate and spot-on when it comes to that culture of guilt: his mother places a fake sparrow with beady eyes outside his and his brother’s room, so someone watches them when they get out of bed at night. She places Sacred Heart of Jesus pictures in every room, and even a glow-in-the-dark lamp version that curtails an early sexual encounter. He sees himself acting out the guilt trip by text with his daughters, letting them “stew in their own juices” thinking about the punishments to come. 

Then there’s the guilt of just being who he is: a “narrowback”, the second-generation immigrant, entitled and removed from the world of hard physical graft of his parents, the “feckin’ eejit” with his “nancy-boy profession”, neither Irish, nor American, but both.
Farragher calls for an evolving sense of Irish-Americanness that can include other cultures and that doesn’t become ossified in the commodities of the “Weekend Irish” (a term coined by the band Barleyjuice – who played our wedding): the fake shillelaghs and shamrock glasses and “loud crap”. 
Himself married to a Jewish woman, he realizes the common ground between different identities when he meets his future Jewish grandmother-in-law. Asked about her successful, award-winning physician son, Jewish granny replies: “He should win the award for man who calls his mother the least.”
For all his talk of guilt, Farragher is remarkably candid about sex and sexuality, whether talking about his daughter’s first period, phoning his wife before a mandatory work jaunt to a strip-club, or talking about the nature of fantasy – being cool with his wife imagining Jon Hamm rather than him as they make love. He’s funny about weight too– after a column crowing about his weight-loss and exercise regime, he adds a disclaimer. Not only has he regained a lot of the weight but he had to go up to the loft to retrieve his larger clothes. What does he find on top of the box? A note addressed to “You Fat Fuck”. He’d written it when he placed the clothes up there, knowing it would only be read if he’d put the weight back on. About what his body looks like on the beach: “I look like uncooked pizza dough that someone used to mop the floor of a barbershop”.
Some of the book does slip into sentimentality and stereotype – the deaths of elderly relatives, Celtic cougars and the pro-choice woman who comes up to him as he’s standing at the Church’s anti-abortion stand is both ugly and crazy. 
The elliptical nature of the book – as a set of columns – makes his changing personal views on faith and the Catholic church seem sudden and beg further analysis and information. The snappiness of the prose – mostly welcome and funny – at other times, deflects from profound consideration of the subjects brought up. 
But these began life as columns and perhaps should be read as such, dipped in and out of, like a weekly confessional.
Without the guilt. 
About the Author