The Irish American experience is different, but it’s no less Irish. A trans-Atlantic perspective may inform your inner dialogue with the old sod, but it’s never been a one-way conversation as Irish Voice music columnist Mike Farragher shows us in the follow up to his book This Is Your Brain on Shamrocks. Cahir O'Doherty hears about 50 Shades O’ Green, Farragher’s latest guided tour through the landmarks of his Irish American heritage.
In the 1970s New Jersey of Mike Farragher’s youth, Hudson County might as well have been located next to County Sligo, it was so filled with folks from home, he recalls.
When he says home he means Ireland, of course. If you’re Irish or Irish American, home always means Ireland. It’s shorthand that only other members of the tribe understand.
It certainly doesn’t mean your loyalties are divided -- on the contrary -- but it’s an acknowledgement that you didn’t spring unformed from a bit of Yankee clay like some latter day Adam.
In Ireland home is where you live; in America home is where you’re from. For Farragher, home was Ireland but home was also Hudson County.
If you can follow that dual awareness without blinking then you’re probably Irish American yourself, because Irish Americans are adept at living in two places at once.
Growing up, the most obvious difference Farragher noticed between Ireland and the U.S. was the view, he writes. Instead of the lush fields and the sparkling Atlantic of Ireland, Farragher’s windows actually looked out on a bleak industrial New Jersey landscape that often made him wonder what his immigrant parents must have thought about the trade between Ireland and America.
The search for a better life, like the search for love, can lead you into unexpected avenues. But the Irish are a tough breed and they know how make do until they make good, which Farragher certainly has.
But along the way he discovered that significant success in one field, the business world, does not necessarily mean that you have accomplished all of your hopes and dreams in every other field of life. The truth is we live in an impatient world where people want to classify and dismiss you as soon as they read your job title. In Farragher’s case, though, that would be a terrific mistake.
“I’m a vice president for a molecular diagnostics company, so when I go to my business world I have my tie on,” he explains to the Irish Voice.
“It’s a different world. In that world the writers don’t understand the marketers and the marketers don’t understand the writers. Business people aren’t supposed to be writers. That’s why I find what I do so liberating, to be self-creating.”
Becoming a writer was a decades long process of discovery for him; Farragher has been writing the weekly Irish Voice column “Off the Record” for 17 years. He charts his course as a writer in his new book, 50 Shades O’Green, the sequel to This Is Your Brain on Shamrocks. But first there were a whole series of early incarnations he had to live through before he found the confidence to share his work.
As 50 Shades O’Green shows, Farragher’s early life certainly provided him with enough classic rites of passage chapters to plunder at will for the rest of his writing life. But Farragher has another writers gift that’s God given, and that few enough ever genuinely possess, which is a creative fearlessness when it comes to which subject he’ll address.
“Picked last in gym class, not a great student in school, I graduated summa cum lucky,” he says with characteristic directness.
“I grew up with cousins, and every one of them was on the dean’s list and I just wasn’t. So being a writer was probably just the next step for me because it was something that no one else in my family was.”
But it wasn’t handed to him, this new writer’s path. In fact, as the book makes clear, Farragher had more than a little native Irish Catholic reticence to navigate through first.
Let’s face it, speaking up, or even thinking you have a story worth telling, is a stumbling block that most Irish people actually never get beyond. That might have been his story too, if it hadn’t been for Sir Bob Geldof.
As he recounts in 50 Shades O’Green, Geldof told him during the course of an interview for the Irish Voice that he never gave a fig about what other people would say about his creative efforts. Geldof used more colorful language to make his point of course, but the lesson stuck with Farragher. Eighteen months later he published his debut novel, Collared.
The best literary critics, in Irish circles, are the ones you also happen to be related to. But even now, he admits, some relatives are still uncomfortable at the idea of him expressing himself so publicly.
Still others explode with pride over his output. You can never predict how people will react.
“One of my cousins papered the entire town of Tuam in Co. Galway with posters about my forthcoming book reading there. She was proud of me and so supportive and this was how she showed it,” Farragher said.
“ She told me, ‘I believe in what you’re doing and saying and no one else is doing that in this family.’ That makes it so worthwhile.”
The first book created some extraordinary conversations with his readers, he admits.
“One day someone came up to me and said, ‘Hey, I know you! You’re that guy I read in the bathroom!’ I wonder if people ever came up to Yeats with lines like that.”
In lively scenes in the new book Farragher sometimes writes about his struggles with his Irish temper. I asked him about it and he laughs, “What the f*** do you mean?”
“It’s in your genetic code to restrain yourself, walk away from a situation and come back later with a level head. That’s for sure. We’re passionate,” Farragher says.
“My wife, who’s Jewish, has a magnet on the refrigerator that reads, ‘Pray for me I married an Irishman.’ But the positive side of that is that you’re passionately engaged with life.”
Farragher has a busy few months ahead promoting his latest collection. On Monday, February 25 and Tuesday the 26th he’ll read at Fiddleheads in Jamesburg, New Jersey alongside musician Seamus Kelleher.
Then on Tuesday, March 5 he’ll take the stage of the Irish Repertory Theatre in New York in the company of fellow writer Honor Molloy and musician Brendan O’Shea.
“I’m reading at the Irish Repertory Theatre, I did a standup monologue recently that was well received and I am thinking of work shopping a play based on my stories. How fun is it to be me?” he says.
“So the flipside of the Irish temper is creativity, eating up your life with a knife and fork. It’s going to be a fun ride of a book tour.”
The journey from a reflexively conservative fear of rocking the boat to the kind of call it like I see it honesty that blazes on every page of 50 Shades O’ Green has been, in a real sense, the journey of Farragher’s life. The difference is that now he has the sense to embrace it fully and not give a fig what others make of it.
“Because I was so afraid for so long of what the neighbors think I was driving my life like three wheels of a car,” he explains. “The fourth wheel was my writing and self-expression.
“When people ask me if I make money writing technically the answer is no, but guess what happened? Since I started to write I’m making three times the money I used to make. My kids are thriving; I’m celebrating the 20th year of my marriage powerfully. I’m more deeply in love with my wife than ever, and it all really began when I stopped caring what the neighbors think. What a great 2013 I have lined up!”
To order a copy of 50 Shades O’Green visit thisisyourbrainonshamrocks.com.