Timothy Donahue Celebrates the Fourth of July in Elmira, NY
One year, my wife and I spent the Fourth of July in Ireland. For some reason, I got it in my head that someone was going to ask one of the Americans in the pub (because don't you know we would be in a pub that evening) to tell a story about the Fourth of July in "Amer-i-kay." They didn't, of course, as they know the sad state of storytelling in America, but if they had, I would have told this story about my great-grandfather and the fourth of July.
Kathleen Donahue, my great grandmother, was fond of telling people that she was a saint. 'It comes from living with the likes of himself,' she would say, referring to my great grandfather Timothy. 'He's driving me right into the arms of Jesus himself.' When told of this, Timothy would reply, although never within earshot of Kathleen, 'Ah, she's not only saintly, she'll be the making of a number of saints, too.'
They were both right. Those in the Rosary Guild at St. Patrick's Church knew Kathleen as having a tongue sharp as an infidel's sword when it came to Timothy. Some said Timothy offended Kathleen just by breathing deeply of God's sweet morning air, but others knew the things Timothy did to set Kathleen off.
Timothy was quite fond of Monsignor John Augustine O'Neill, the pastor of St. Patrick's, whom Kathleen disliked due to his insatiable need for baked goods to be raffled off for the Church building fund. But there was a more personal reason. There was a fine tradition in the Irish American community to name a son for the pastor. Kathleen wanted to name her sons after relatives and other sensible people, not a charlatan in a cassock. Timothy had every intention of honoring the tradition and his friend the pastor.
When their first son was born, Kathleen, spent in childbirth, was powerless to protest. Timothy put on his hat, went to the registrar's office and put the name "John Augustine Donahue" on the birth certificate. Kathleen perhaps could have lived with this, but Tim did the same for his second son, the third, the fourth, and fifth. To avoid confusion, Tim changed the spelling of Donahue on the birth certificates-first DONAHUE, followed by DONAGHUE, DONAHOE, DONOHOE, and finally DONAHEW.
Kathleen reconciled herself to her sons' names by calling them by the names she would have put on the birth certificates, and never by their Christian name. In time, Tim began to use the names too, and peace reigned in the Donahue household.
Until the Fourth of July. Timothy was as proud of his adopted country as if he had been born here and fought in the Whiskey Rebellion of 1791. He celebrated the Fourth as if it had been John Augustine's (the pastor's) birthday he was celebrating, and made elaborate preparations for the event. Mostly, these involved putting a keg of whiskey in the cellar around June 20. All the sons left the whiskey alone, because they knew they would come to grievous harm if they so much as raised the lid and sniffed it. Not from Timothy, although he was not adverse to making sure his sons John walked the straight and narrow, but from the whiskey itself. It was an elixir of dubious origin.
On the glorious Fourth, Tim would rise, get dressed in a white suit, white shirt, and a black bow tie, affix a small American flag pin to his lapel, and go downtown to meet his friends for the parade. They were all dressed in white suits, white shirts, and black ties, with American flags in their lapels.
Now, watching a parade under a hard July sun is hard, thirsty work, so the group traditionally retired to Keegan's for a little fortification before–and sometimes during–the big event. When the parade approached, the men stood in front of Keegan's and cheered the bands, the flag, the politicians, even the town's new fire wagon driven by Mike Casey, the biggest leprechaun in Elmira, NY, as he said of himself. Mike was always torn between being with his friends and professional duty. Duty won, as the year Mike was a spectator, the team of six Belgians bolted on James White, the substitute driver, and nearly obliterated the Masonic Temple float. So Mike was back on the fire wagon.
When the parade was over, Casey changed into suitable attire and joined the group after , back to Timothy's cellar the men went. They marched across the porch in single file, as quiet as the guest of honor at a funeral, through the living room, the kitchen, and down the stairs to the cellar. Tim closed the door, and there was not a sound to be heard from the basement, as quiet as a Scotsman offering to stand a round.
Around three o'clock, the door from the basement would open, and two men would carry the first casualty of the day through the kitchen, the living room, across the porch, and lay him gently on the front lawn. Then, in a fairly rapid progression, another and another and another would be brought upstairs to serve as a white-suited lawn ornament. Some years, passerby would comment that it seemed an awfully odd time for snow, there was so much white in front of the Donahue household.
Later in the afternoon, the children of the family men would come and load their old man into a wheelbarrow and trundle him home. The veteran bachelors often hired a neighbor kid to take them away in wheelbarrows, too, while the less prudent were left to deal with the lampposts, trees, and broken sidewalks they encountered trying to get back home. Some negotiated with enterprising kids who showed up with wheelbarrows. Invariably they struck a bad deal, but they weren't working with their best stuff.
The celebration continued until only two men were left standing. Up the stairs they would come. Tim would ceremoniously lock the door of the cellar, escort Casey to the front door (it was invariably Casey who was the other last man standing. According to local lore, a story started and perpetuated by Clancy himself, he once outdrank the entire crew of a German man o' war. Nobody had been in Hamburg to witness it, but the man could hold his drink.), where they solemnly shook hands, never exchanging a word between them. Off Casey would go, and Tim would turn and go back into the house.
The Fourth of July was over for another year.
Many neighbors remarked on the silence of the men in the cellar, but more remarked on the miraculous silence of Kathleen Donahue about the whole affair. 'Ah, she's a sainted woman, she is,' they would say. 'After all these years, and she not prying at all. A saint, she is, not to pry into a man's business that way.'