Irish, Catholic, Poor: A New York Past Rescued

A Song for Mary: An Irish-American Memory , by Dennis Smith. Warner Books, 369 pages, $23.

Dennis Smith’s name figured prominently in my family’s house in the mid-1970’s. Mr. Smith was the young firefighter who made it big with a book, Report From Engine Co. 82 , that told of the everyday heroics in a single firehouse in the South Bronx at a time when the Bronx was burning. The book sold 2 million copies; it was the Angela’s Ashes of its day, a stunning work of art written by somebody nobody had ever heard of.

At the time, my firefighting father, he of Engine Company 162 on Staten Island, was gently urging me to at least consider following in his footsteps. I can still hear his arguments: “You’ll never be out of work,” he’d say–need I note that he was a child of the Great Depression?–”and you’ll get a pension after 20 years. You retire at 45 and you can start a new job. Look at Dennis Smith. He’ll retire and write.” It was an enticing proposal (the bit about retiring at 45 looks awfully good at 43) but Report From Engine Co. 82 persuaded me that private-sector employment, while risky, was considerably less dangerous than running into burning buildings looking for people who may or may not be there. Then again, after more than 20 years in the private sector, I still don’t have an employer-funded pension plan.

Dennis Smith eventually did retire from firefighting, and in the nearly quarter-century since Report From Engine Co. 82 , he has written several books of nonfiction and fiction. They have done well, but with the release of A Song for Mary , Mr. Smith reminds us why William F. Buckley Jr. called Report “a masterpiece” in New York magazine in 1972. (Quoting one particularly brilliant passage from Report , Mr. Buckley wrote: “You have here Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Charles Dickens, Will Herberg, Oscar Lewis and Ring Lardner.”)

Mr. Smith’s memoir is a story of Irish-Catholic poverty (on East 56th Street, no less–yes, ye wizards of the information age, poor people once lived on the Upper East Side) and the redemption he found through his mother’s love and through the support and guidance of priests and nuns. The story of Mary Smith’s determination to overcome tragedy and despair is inspiring; the tales of decent and humane Catholic clergy are positively startling. Mr. Smith dares to be stunningly counterintuitive: Writers who touch on their Irish-American Catholic childhoods are supposed to wallow in the repression and guilt imposed upon them by parental prudes, stern priests and sadistic nuns. A Catholic upbringing is supposed to be a nightmare; its tenets are reserved for the simple-minded.

Irish-Americanism and/or Catholicism are, in short, something to be escaped, to be left behind in the cultural ghetto. And that is no easy task, for the sharp-eyed among the cultural elite have ways of detecting latent Catholic qualities. Jay McInerney’s mini-memoir of his Irish-Catholic mother, published in the Jan. 18 edition of The New Yorker , notes that while his father was a Catholic, “he could have passed for a WASP.” Well, lucky for him, and what a relief for his son! Imagine the sheer terror of trying to fit in with New York’s vapid and vacuous, knowing all the time that your father was so, so Catholic ! Like, yuck!

Mr. McInerney’s complaints about what he termed, in his elegant way, the “bullshit of Catholicism,” are what New York’s literary and intellectual types expect, and perhaps even demand, from books about Irish-Catholic childhoods. Interestingly, Mr. McInerney does not enumerate the offenses that make up Catholicism’s “bullshit”–no doubt he anticipated the Pope’s recent condemnation of drug abuse–but he probably figured there was no need. Readers of The New Yorker would, of course, understand.

In A Song for Mary , Dennis Smith provides an antidote to the Irish-Catholic self-loathing that New York’s smart set seems to demand. (The wonderful Frank McCourt does not disguise his bitterness toward Catholicism–the memorable first paragraph in Angela’s Ashes says it all–but he deserves a dispensation not only because he is my friend, but because the Church so clearly let him down when he was poor and hungry.)

Mr. Smith presents himself as a street-smart city kid, circa 1950, desperate for direction and yet posing as though he couldn’t care less. “I am so tired of all of it, everyone telling me what I should be doing,” he complains after a worried Sister Alphonsus threatens to block his grammar-school graduation because of his low grades. (Behold the nuns’ famous tyranny!) His mother’s lonely struggle to make sure the family never again has to turn to welfare resonates only as it gives young Dennis a chance to be cool. “In the living room, I lit the cigarette and leaned far back into the pillow of the couch. I knew that my mother was cleaning some apartment down on Sutton Place, and so I just relaxed,” he writes.

Eventually, he starts hanging out with the wrong crowd, drops out of high school, takes the Second Avenue bus to Harlem to score heroin with his buddies and gets beaten up in street fights. All the while, his brother Billy is thriving. He’s a basketball star at Cardinal Hayes High School in the Bronx, and he’s attentive to his studies. Smart-ass Dennis doesn’t see the point. “I realized that I didn’t really care about … Sister Alphonsus or the Regents exam. I just cared about what I was going to do next.”

But plenty of people cared about Dennis Smith. Monsignor Ford helped him get into Cardinal Hayes High School, and even when Dennis disappointed him by dropping out, the priest helps him get a job at Catholic Charities. When Father O’Rourke hears that Dennis has quit school, he says, simply, “Keep reading books, and being interested in what’s going on in the world around you. No matter what’s going on in your life, always care about what you are putting inside your mind.” Betty Fallon, the librarian at the Kips Bay Boys Club, gives him big books to read every week. And his very Catholic, very Irish mother fights him, cajoles him, shouts at him and loves him. “My mother loves to read to us … She has a real New York accent, and when she wants to say bottle , she says ba-ull . The nuns are always harping about the New York accent … and that the bosses at the insurance companies will never give us jobs if we have New York accents. But I love to hear my mother read, and especially when she says ba-ull .”

It all paid off in the end–the lectures, the threats, the reading, the love. And Dennis Smith, a wise man, understands that the path from street kid to the Fire Department of New York–never mind to literary fame–was no solitary journey. He cried for help, and help he received, from his Church, from his heritage, from the City of New York and from the woman he sings of in this moving book, his mother.

Given modern literary conventions, this is daring stuff, wonderful stuff.