A (Still in Progress) Character Sketch: Dad
He was full of himself ” is how Aunt Peggy answered my question when I asked her, so what was my father really like?
John Patrick O’Shea, born in 1920 in Ballydavid, Dingle, County Kerry, Ireland. I remember Dad getting indignant when, in 1997, my husband Bill and I could not find BallyDavid on a map of Ireland. “There are two pubs and a post office!” he said with pride and as if describing a major metropolis.
John Patrick O’Shea, the fourth child of 13 children born to Patrick and Catherine O’Shea in this harsh, rural, Gaelic speaking part of the world. I say harsh because I’ve been there and experienced how the cold and the wind and the rain sometimes never let up and make you want to curl under a blanket and never come out. There was beautiful land and water for them back then, sure, but nothing to amuse — no theaters, no roller skating rinks, no swimming pools. Just beautiful fields and hills, stone walls, old houses and churches. And John had a tough father. The kids called him Hitler. there was a story about how my father and uncle Jim were goofing around and broke the plow. It was so hard to get the right piece and repairs in those days. In anger over the broken plow, Hitler threw the two of them out of the house to survive as best they could among the cliffs. This is a much told story and the details are hard to come by. Uncle Pat said he snuck food out to them. Eventually the plow was repaired and the two sons returned.
There were too many mouths to feed and there was some type of lottery system in that house that’s never been clear to me. It was a way to decide who stays in Ireland and who goes to the US. My father was to go. My Uncle Pat was to stay back but the departure day came and Uncle Jim who was on the “to go” list got sick and stayed back. Uncle Pat went in Jim’s place and I think it broke his heart to leave.
In his younger days John was tall, about 6 foot three, dark and handsome. He had lots of thick black hair. I remember he used some kind of hair pomade to keep that mop in line. He had dark brown eyes. He sang beautifully and did so in the church choir, at weddings and picnics, and very often in our living room. Mother encouraged him. Dad would make Mother a high ball and grab a Guinness for himself and these two homebodies spent many an evening together, he the entertaining singer and she the eager audience.
Born and raised on that beautiful Dingle Peninsula and having spent most of his life outside in the fields or fishing in big open boats on the waters of Dingle Bay, Dad had a hard time working inside. He gave up a factory job at Brach’s Candy and exchanged it for the outdoors as a line man for the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA).
When my father first left Ireland in the late 1940s (???), he spent a few years in England, then made his way to Pittsburgh where he stayed with an aunt at first. He then moved to Chicago and joined his brother Pat and eventually two sisters joined them. I hear Dad was a big hit at the Irish American dances where he met my mother.
In many ways my father never left Ireland. Case in point: the Irish breakfasts he cooked on Saturday and Sunday mornings, and he went all out with the sausages and bacon, eggs, black pudding and fried potatoes. He drank tea, lots of it, and strong stuff. He listened to WPA Chicago, the Irish hour radio station that I believe he helped found. He read Irish newspapers. He went to places that broadcast Irish football games.
I understood his Irish brogue and didn’t realize that it was still thick and some, including my husband, struggled to understand him. Bill admitted that on occasion when I left him alone in a room with Dad, that he felt a little anxious without me, his interpreter.
Dad grew up speaking Gaelic but we never heard that language at home in Chicago. On his only trip back to Ireland with my brother Kevin he didn’t say hello or show any affection to his brother Jim upon their arrival. No, instead he broke into Gaelic immediately and loudly, chastising Uncle Jim for not taking better care of the family house.
As a child, I remember Dad going to work every day. The man would never call in sick. And remember, he chose that outside job which in Chicago means extreme temperatures in the summer and winter. So he was hard working all week. In the evenings he’d have his dinner, then his tea, and then either watch TV (he loved Laurel and Hardy, Red Skeleton, I Love Lucy and Mayberry RFD) or he would read.
My father loved to read, but not fiction. We used to say that Dad must have read every nonfiction book in the Edison Park Library. He especially loved adventure stories especially the ones about Shackleton and trips to the South Pole.
On Saturday mornings Dad could be a little bit like Hitler. He worked us kids hard. Chores until noon no matter what. We’d dust and vacuum, clean and rake and paint. It seemed at times he was making up jobs just to fill the time until noon.
And you didn’t dare cross him. In our house you’d get yelled at and hit if you misbehaved.
On Sundays I remember Dad in his crisp white shirt and tie. He’d have a couple of little shaving nicks on his neck or chin and he’d put a little piece of Kleenex on the red blood. He seemed to forget about those spots and go out looking like that. I remember some after shave, probably Brylcreem, a popular scent from the fifties. A devout Catholic, he never missed mass on Sundays and holidays and he made sure we didn’t either.
End of draft one…