Remembrance of biases past

"Island Series 3'' (oil on paper), by Dianne Dolan, at Galatea Fine Art, Boston.

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made:
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the mourning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight's all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet's wings.

I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart's core.

-- William Butler Yeats

Happy St. Patrick's Day!

When I was growing up in Cohasset, a very pretty small town on Massachusetts Bay, the then-majority population of Wasps tended to be suspicious of, and discriminate against, the Irish Catholics who were moving to such suburbs from the cities after World War II at an accelerating clip.

Indeed, the Wasps, or call them the "old Yankees,'' kept the latter out of the  town's private golf and yacht clubs for a long time. On my very long street, there were no Catholics except a family called HIll in which the husband had agreed to convert as a condition of marrying his Catholic fiancee.

Some of the Wasps believed that the Vatican told these people what to do from morning to night. The ritual of the weekly confessions at the  local Catholic church aroused some sardonic merriment. ("What do they do so much that requires all these confessions?'')

However, the  fish merchants loved them because Catholics were barred from eating meat on Fridays.

John F. Kennedy's election to the presidency in 1960 accelerated the move away from such bias. Of course, JFK was no model of morality, Catholic or otherwise. But he was, at least in public, cool, elegant and urbane -- sort of what the Wasps saw themselves as, at least the sober ones.

The Wasps  tended to also dislike the  (the almost entirely Catholic) Italians, although there were far fewer of them than Irish in the town. As "mackerel snapper'' was used to describe the Irish, so "fruit peddler'' was applied to the Italians.

The Irish tended to be singled out for allegedly being political crooks and the Italians for allegedly being connected to the Mafia.

The Yankee complaints about the Irish and Italians included that they had too many children (although the Wasps were having a lot of them back then, too -- including my own thermonuclear family, with its five kids). I think that a fear was that the Irish would rapidly reproduce themselves into total power, and then make everyone else take orders from the Pope.

Years later, when I worked in Boston, I was surprised to learn that there was also considerable antagonism there between the Irish, based in South Boston, and the Italians, based in the North End, with slurs (and sometimes worse) flying back and forth. The Wasps, whose proportion of the population was plunging, were seen as quirky and musty has-beens.

The ethnic clannishness has faded a lot since then. Now widening economic gaps fuel the most anger in Boston.

Of course, the religious-ethnic lines can be fuzzy. Yeats, the greatest Irish poet, was of Protestant background.

-- Robert Whitcomb