From an Irish Wake to the death of an Irish American governor - are any of use prepared to deal with death?
In a new book called My Father’s Wake: How the Irish Teach Us How to Live, Love and Die, Kevin Toolis reminds us of how complicated the Irish relationship to death is.
“Death is a whisper in the Anglo-Saxon world,” writes Toolis, whose family has lived on an island off the coast of Mayo for two centuries.
“On the island,” Toolis adds, “death has a louder voice.” By this he does not mean the raucous “Irish wake” of stereotypical lore, doused in drink and brawls. Instead, Toolis describes a mourning rooted in ancient rituals, which is not maudlin or sentimental or shameful, “not veiled but a rite within an Irish clan.”
Which brings us to a kerfuffle that has broken out in Jersey, with the friends and family of a former Irish American governor on one side, and Catholic doctrine watchdogs on the other.
It’s a reminder not only of how un-Anglo Saxon the Irish can be, but also -- saints preserve us! -- how shaky the relationship between the Irish and the Catholic Church has always been.
This story begins on January 4, when former New Jersey governor Brendan Byrne died at the age of 93. Byrne’s grandparents were Irish immigrants who settled is what would become West Orange, New Jersey.
Before moving on to how Byrne rose from the these humble roots to become one of the most powerful figures in the history of New Jersey -- even visiting Ireland in 1976 as a contingent celebrating the American bicentennial -- a word about Byrne’s immigrant grandparents, Maggie and Michael Byrne. They were raising their nine children in Essex County when, in 1887, a devastating wave of typhus and diphtheria struck. Within a week, according to Byrne biographer Donald Linky, six of the nine Byrne children were dead.
In the wake of this unfathomable tragedy, a 10th child, Francis Aloysius “Frank” Byrne, was born. In 1924, Frank and his wife, Genevieve, gave birth the future governor.
So on the subject of death, sadly, the Byrnes have experiences like few others. Thankfully, God blessed Brendan with a long, accomplished life.
And so, perhaps with one eye on the Irish and their long history of unconventional mourning, the Byrne family decided earlier this month to inter some of Byrne’s ashes in Healy’s Tavern in Jersey City, a cozy Irish pub resting in the shadow of the New Jersey Turnpike extension.
"Healy's Tavern in March is the epicenter of all things Irish in Hudson (County),” former Jersey governor James McGreevey, another Irish American, told NJ.com.
Noting that Byrne “enjoyed a great yarn, great music and Ireland,” friends and family were invited to Healy’s "to offer your prayers, Jameson, and Tullamore D.E.W…in accordance with the governor's wishes."
McGreevey added, ”We thought that was an appropriate and, if not sacred, at least semi-hallowed ground.”
That’s where things get complicated.
You might recall back in 2016, the Vatican felt it necessary to remind the faithful that there are rules -- aren’t there always? -- regarding the ashes of the departed.
“Cremated remains should be kept in a ‘sacred place’ such as a church cemetery,” CNN noted at the time. “Ashes should not be divided up between family members, nor may they be preserved in mementos, pieces of jewelry or other objects.”
A Newark Archdiocese spokesman told NJ.com, “You don't just have (the ashes) hanging on the mantle piece. You don't send him on a tour.”
And so, yet again, a church -- which, yes, has been instrumental to Irish life in the states -- presents a solution in desperate need of a problem. A church whose doctrine has injured and isolated so many…offers up doctrine as the answer.
Not that Brendan Byrne, much less the ancestors who set him on his way in the new world, would be worried.
As McGreevey was quoted as saying, "He would appreciate the kerfuffle."
* Tom Deignan is a contributing writer for the new book Nine Irish Lives: The Fighters, Thinkers, and Artists Who Helped Build America (Algonquin). Contact “Sidewalks” at tdeignan.blogspot.com.