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An Intimacy with Violence

While blogsite was down last night I wondered if anyone would note return of 'Rescue Me;' thanks Michael Higgins and thanks to John Schmalzbauer the great young sociologist of religion and former Worcester guy (Denis Leary's hometown) for reminding me show was back. I've only seen bits as with everything but Mr. Higgins has it down; plus this Denis Leary is funny! and author of greatest single one-liner re the Irish-Americans: "What is it about the Irish and paneling?"

    BUT and ok I'm sure this is strictly my problem what is about the Catholics and violence? Or do I mean 'representations' of Catholics and violence? Lookit the poster for new 'Rescue Me' season: it's been in-your-facing NYC area commuters for weeks now; the curve of the neck, fire-eating/breathing evoke Thomas Nast's Civil War era cartoons of Irish savagery no? (with a splash of Richard Avedon/Robert Mapplethorpe).  From the mayhem wrought of the 'nominally' Catholic Sopes. families to the issue with violence/sexual violence that apparently figures in 'Rescue Me's' past; we like it especially red and bloody it seems (there's an essay for someone on Mink the very un-Catholic gangland lawyer and his struggles with ketchup bottle in penultimate scene on Sopes. Sunday night; that David Chase is one stone genius) .

     But in all the talks about redemption/salvation via this violence etc we often overlook basics: getting smacked or worse really hurts! I was tossed through a wall or two as kid but more routinely lived under a regimen we like to call 'The Irish Waterfront.' Now I'm not selling books here since it won't be out for way long but it was 'sobering' doing historical research on NY/NJ waterfront to discover how much the ol' neighborhood (West Side Manhattan, Hudson County NJ et al) was dominated by violence, brutality, and a version of Catholicism that equated an 'intimacy with violence' with spiritual authenticity and cultural authority. The Irish guy that ran the NY waterfront rackets from 1920s-50s was the most highly honored layman in the NY Archdiocese and, as the curmudgeonly columnist Westbrook Pegler once wrote, he was a much more menacing figure than the 'secularized' Prime Minister of Organized Crime, Frank Costello (Francesco Castiglia); AND he had the West Side's most powerful Monsignor on hand to remind nosy outsiders this waterfront was a special Catholic place.

     Do Catholics demonstrate their freedom from this one-time bondage by making of it art? Could be. I know too there's whole school of theology/thought that says these poor folk were simply 'uncatechized' thus not really Catholic and another school that says everybody did it get off it will you please?  But I'm also thinking we've not even started examining this stuff in real hard ways using real evidence grounded in real experience. In Peter Quinn's wonderful new book on Irish-America, for example, he writes: "The use of corporal punishment in schools like St. Raymond's [of his Bronx boyhood] has been covered to the point of parody." I used to believe that too but can someone refer me to an actual historical study of violence/punishment in Catholic schools?

      This hang-up started at Fordham's autism and advocacy conference in October when a wonderful guy, prez. of a Catholic high school, responded to wisecrack that while I may be ambivalent about my Catholic education I wished my autistic son could have at least the chance to be ambivalent about his. Speaker said his friends that run other Catholic high schools lament that grads won't return for reunions 'just because we beat the hell out of them;' speaker then remarked that he was grateful that his 7th grade nun cared enough to hit him so hard 'her false teeth flew across the room.' I laughed; the other Catholics in room seemed to laugh; others didn't laugh and that's led to an ongoing conversation with someone that's been struggling to understand this unique cultural/religious tradition.

       I know I tend toward the personal in these posts but what surprised me in conversation with this individual was their observation I have not, in fact, been very forthcoming about my experiences on 'the Irish waterfront.' It also occurred to me that this 'intimacy with violence' that was so dominant along that highly portable waterfront is discussed in ways that are themselves deeply intimate and rarely shared on the outside.   




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This comment once again proves to me that East Coast Catholicism was very different (and not for the better) from the rest of the country. I was raised in the upper midwest and taught by Dominican nuns who never, to my memory, committed 1-10th of the violence that I keep reading about. We were mainly Irish and German in ancestry, as were they. But, there must be something in the waters on the Shore.

Jimmy Mac: I discovered just what you mean while living in both StLouie and St. Paul. There is no place more religiously tribal than NYC. I hesitated to even bring in 'nuns' cause that immediately trggers the stereotypes; I'm more interested in synergy of politics, religion, labor, the mob et al that created distinctive style which in this case unfortunately fostered violence and intimidation. Most important of all is to get the locations and styles down to see how truly diverse U.S. Catholic tradition has been. Turns out there are and were many 'Catholicisms' out there though perhaps because this is media capital Dennis Leary--who's been in NYC for decades--is today's Jimmy Cagney. To complicate it a bit or show power of local cultures: the great Jesuit labor priest Phil Carey S.J. grew up in northeast Bronx when it was still part-rural (19-teens). His parish imported teaching nuns from Wisconsin: "German farm girls," he wrote; "they beat the hell out of us and really they learned us something good."

I'm sorry to be dim, but what are we talking about?Violence among Irish-Catholics? Or only Irish-Catholics in New York?An Irish penchant for violence that leached into Catholicism through Catholic schools?Or the fact that there's money to be made on TV by serving up "colorful" fightin' drinkin' Irish types?As far as I can tell from a family history that shifts like quicksand, my relatives entered the U.S. through Canada as illegals and never went to New York.They enjoyed quarreling with each other a lot, but the violence was confined to strapping the kids. They were devoted pet owners, though. They never went to any school, Catholic or otherwise, past the 8th grade, and they never went to church by the time I came along. What kind of god kills his own son because he's mad at the rest of us, why, no human being would stoop that low, not even Uncle Johnny.Paneling was cheap, required no more than a swipe with a damp cloth, and lasted forever. It was ideal if you rented rooms to boarders, and it didn't look too awful bad, as Aunt Grace used to say.At the height of the paneling craze, you could get the wood-look or wallpaper-look that would go with just about any decor. I strolled through Home Depot recently and realized them days are gone.

Jean how do you turn material into "history" that is untreated in previous 'History" and in this case it would be immigrant history, Catholic history, urban history, where histories of say anger and violence would be treated rather than relegated to folklore or shameful tales of 'drunkenness and cruelty' to quote Ray Davies, among other themes. Almost everything I read about Catholicism seems to describe an experience or a religion that is different than the one I grew up in tho demographically I'd be close to some 'norm.' I'd like to see Catholic studies programs work more like ethnic/urban studies; gather testimonies from folks all over and from various traditions and religions since it should always be comparative; learn more about actual experiences such as immigrant experience you narrate.

James, perhaps the central problem with the Catholic experience versus the Catechism is that the ideal usually supplanted the real. You were not only lucky to suffer but you were an ingrate if you were not happy about it. Robert Orsi is a must source for your studies since he studies experience tho he doesn't seem to write about gangsters.In my neighborhood in Bronx New York (not Arthur ave) the Mafia was omnipresent and had those kind of names you see described in the movie "Good Fellas." The gangster's wives were modest and sent their children to Catholic schools. The flamboyancy came with the mistresses.Most people were not involved with the Mafia but knew who they were. The neighborhood had a decided tough guy tone to it. There were physical fights all the time. Sometimes to relieve the boredom. My impression is that the violence was a ghetto, immigrant phenomenon. Definitely not Catholic, even tho the participants had a Catholic upbringing.There is something to say about Catholics and violence. Athanasius and Augustine seemed to be good at it.

I always marvel at how many people seem to have been beaten up by nuns in Catholic grammer schools. I don't contest their stories, but I must say this wasn't my experience. New York is a tough city, but the parochial school system was also seen - in my youth, and I think today - as a haven against violence. Fear of corporal punishment from the nuns or the brothers paled by comparison to the fear of violence from children in the public schools whom we met in the streets. Many parents sent their children to Catholic schools, at least in the inner city, for their safety. Nice kids went to Catholic schools.

James, I like the testimony collection idea. But I think that's only part of the story.If you can indulge me in one last anecdote:I was reading Nuala O'Faillon's "My Dream of You," in which the Irish kids in Catholic school are set to write an essay on the poem, "The Beauty of this World Hath Made Me Sad."When I (and several of my Irish-American girlfriends) read that, we laughed our heads off. It seemed like the kind of maudlin thing our parents and grandparents would like.BUT! I mentioned this to an Irish e-mail correspondent, who was appalled by our callousness. (I later looked up the poem and understood why, and then I felt bad).The same correspondent also explained to me what likely happened to my family in Belfast (they were later immigrants), and how indiustrialization probably led to economic anxiety and a strain of fearfulness and cantankerousness in my family.So, you can document the behavior and attitudes of Irish Americans, but I'm not sure that even we understand why we're like we are.

I have a dear friend (Jewish) who was raised in Brooklyn. He has indicated on more than one occasion that he HATED the coming of Good Friday. That was the day that the good Irish and Italian kids from the parochial schools went out looking for "Christ killers" to beat up. Now THAT is religiously-inspired violence.

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