On New Year’s Eve, actor William Christopher died in California at the age of 84. Christopher played the Irish American priest Francis John Patrick Mulcahy on the hit TV show M*A*S*H*, set during the Korean War.
This was not a loss on the level of Prince or David Bowie, or even Carrie Fisher or Debbie Reynolds. Still, for fans of that excellent old show it was a sad way to close out what was a rough year when it came to losing talented people.
It got me to thinking about M*A*S*H*and particularly Father Mulcahy’s soothing temperament amidst the chaos of war. About the only time you saw him lose his cool was when surgeon Charles Emerson Winchester III, a stuffy, rich WASP from Brahmin Boston, tossed off an offensive comment about Catholics or the Irish. It was always hard to tell what was more reprehensible -- the offensive comment, or the casualness with which Winchester made the offensive comment.
This all served as a reminder that we shouldn’t look back to the good old days with such starry eyes. For Irish Catholics -- for many Americans -- the past is a place best left behind.
Yes, at the start of a new year, people tend to focus on the future. But as this year grinds on and -- let’s be honest here -- once our new president is sworn in, an intense sort of nostalgia is likely to kick in.
We all know the slogan Donald Trump used so effectively to win the presidency (if not the popular vote). Trump’s candidacy was fueled by a deep nostalgia for a country that was apparently once so great that rich WASPs could casually insult Irish Catholics.
Look, nostalgia has its place. Even if it is sometimes illogical to wallow in the past, its allure can be very powerful, especially during anxious times.
This is one reason It’s a Wonderful Life remains a holiday classic. By the time the movie really hits its stride, Bedford Falls is a snow-covered winter wonderland where everyone seems to know and help everyone else.
Except, it’s really not!
Beneath the pretty surface are deep, simmering miseries. George Bailey is an angry, abusive man contemplating suicide. Mr. Potter is a ruthless oligarch who (again, with disturbing casualness) mutters disdainfully about the Italian immigrant “garlic eaters” who have dared to moved into his town.
Is this the “great” America we want to go back to?
Consider the new Ben Affleck movie Live by Night. The movie is apparently quite a dud, but the world it conjured (based on the sprawling novel by Irish American Dennis Lehane) is worth a closer look.
The main character, Joe Coughlin, is fortunate enough to have been raised in a family which took a very Irish path to respectability: law enforcement. Coughlin’s dad is a big wig with the Boston Police Department.
Ah, but it is the Roaring 20s, and alcohol has been outlawed. And so -- just as folks do with illegal drugs today -- ethnic gangs formed to take the money people were very willing to hand over in exchange for any kind of booze.
Coughlin, of course, falls in with Irish gangsters, including big boss Tim Hickey. He also partners up with Italian American mobsters who, after a stint in prison, send him down to Florida.
It is there that Coughlin runs into trouble not only with law enforcement but also the Ku Klux Klan. At the time, the Klan was no small-time band of racist thugs burning crosses in the middle of the woods. The Klan, by the 1920s, became so respectable countless politicians and even a Supreme Court justice were members.
The Klan raged not only against African Americans, but also Catholics, Jews and immigrants. They looked at big cities as corrupt pits of vice and exploited rural and suburban fears that “their country” was changing in terrible ways.
I’d ask if this is really the country we want to go back to. But I think we’re there already.