Growing Up as 'One of the Green Ridge O'Briens'

A Letter From Scranton

March 17, 1991|By DENNIS O'BRIEN

SCRANTON, PA. — Scranton, Pa.--Let me tell you about growing up Irish Catholic in a town that was filled with Irish Catholics.

First of all, there was the size of the families.

Our family of 10 was nothing unusual. The Comerfords had 9 kids, the Dohertys had 11, the Hintons 12, the Maloneys 10 and the Quinns had 14. When Mother Church told the Irish to be fruitful and multiply, they took her orders very seriously in Scranton.

This law of nature had major consequences.

Not only did I grow up inheriting my older brothers' shirts and socks, I was referred to as "Bobby O'Brien's brother" or as "One of the Green Ridge O'Briens" as much as by my own name.

Everyone went to the same Catholic schools and the sisters always remembered the reputation of one child when it came to dealing with the next. This meant that if the oldest boy was a troublemaker, God help his younger siblings.

My two older brothers were not really troublemakers, but my older brother Joe won an academic scholarship to the local Jesuit prep school, which put pressure on me to be smarter than I was.

Yet I had teachers who seemed to have infinite patience, particularly when you consider they dealt with 50 or 60 squirming children in one classroom, many of us too thick-headed for such chores as memorizing the questions and responses in the Baltimore Catechism.

"Who made us?

"God made us.

"Why did God make us?

"God made us to show forth His goodness and to share with us His everlasting happiness in heaven."

Learning such theology was always at least partly inspired back then by the threat of corporal punishment. No one went through St. Clare's School in those days without at least hearing about the paddle hanging in the principal's office.

Even now, I can recall schoolyard conversations about it.

"Dennis, I was in there. I SAW it. It's made outta wood, and it's at least THAT THICK."

Yet growing up in Scranton had its advantages.

I think of Scranton as being about as safe as any small town. Street muggings were unheard of. In most neighborhoods, everybody knew everybody else, and besides, nobody ever had any money.

Surrounded by the Pocono Mountains, Scranton once held a wealth of anthracite coal, enough to bring laborers by the thousands to work in mines that thrived from the mid-1800s through the 1930s.

The mines are gone now, but the mountains remain -- scenic reminders that life has its parameters.

The Irish I knew were a God-fearing, fatalistic, story-telling people, who distrusted authority and were prone to boasting, strong drink, self-pride and self-pity.

And there remains things about Scranton that seem distinctly Irish.

This is a town where most of the bars I spent my youth in had names like Scanlon's and O'Toole's.

The mayor when I was growing up was a Hanlon, the fire chief was a Ruddy, and each year in March they painted the center stripe of the downtown streets green to set the tone for the St. Patrick's Day parade.

One of the city's more prominent social occasions is still the annual dinner held by the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick, a group that a few years ago saw one of its own -- a Casey from Green Ridge -- elected governor.

His election was a coup for a mining city that, like many old industrial centers along the East Coast, has seen better economic days.

There is a tiny borough outside of the city, Archbald, where the old timers still speak with an Irish brogue. I've been told that is because so many of its residents migrated from Ireland -- a country that has seen its share of citizens leave to search for better economic opportunities.

This brings me to my point. For better or worse, Scranton has a very definite sense of place about it, an identity.

It comes from knowing that you were growing up in the same place where your parents grew up, and where their parents grew up.

In Scranton, most people a generation ago faced two world wars and one major depression and never thought of leaving. They were born there, raised there, married there, and they died there, and it was as simple as that.

My father, for one, is buried in the Cathedral Cemetery, four blocks directly up a hill from the house where he was born and raised, and where he spent a good part of his life rearing eight children.

But times are not so simple any more, and such stable lifestyles are a rarity these days.

All four of my father's sons have left town. So has every one of the half dozen friends I was closest to in high school. All of them left to find better economic opportunities elsewhere.

The migration of the Irish continues.

Dennis O'Brien is a reporter for The Sun.

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