Friday, March 14, 2008

My grandfather -- Irish without the blarney

My grandfather, Martin Hett, was 12 when he left home in County Roscommon, Ireland, and traveled to northern England to work in the coal mines. Anything was better than his home life, even 12-hour days spent underground. One positive thing -- a Brit family took him in and treated him well. At 17, he had enough money to sail to the U.S. and then on to Chicago where he lived with his older brother and worked on the city's rail system. After having a lung and several ribs removed due to a massive infection (this was before antibiotics), the doctors told him to move to the dry climes of Arizona or Colorado. He arrived at Denver's Union Station on a bright summer day. The air tasted sweet, and he could see the Rocky Mountains. It was 1920, he was 20, and life looked pretty good.

Seventy years later, my one-lunged Irish grandfather died in Denver.

He was a good man with an angry streak that his grandkids saw only occasionally. It infuriated him when his fellow Irish in South Denver cursed the Brits. He'd respond that the Brits treated him better than the Irish ever did. It's not that he didn't like his Irishness. He was Irish Catholic through and through, and a longtime member of the Hibernian Club, which is where he met my grandmother. But the Brits had given him a job and taken him in and fed him when he was a lad. In County Roscommon, he lived in a tiny drafty house with many siblings, a drunken father, and a crazed stepmother. The priests at school were harsh. When a boy disobeyed, the priests ordered him down to the local stream to fetch a switch for a beating. Young Martin fetched more than a few switches.

My grandfather never returned to Ireland. He could have, many times, but didn't see the need. He preferred America to Ireland. He toasted the country of his birth on St. Patrick's Day and whenever necessary, but he'd also raise a glass to Denver and the Colorado mountains and the U.K. and his many grandchildren and the president (especially JFK) and the pope and to life itself.

On Monday on St. Patrick's Day, I'll raise a glass to the memory of my grandfather. He was Irish without all the blarney. I miss him.

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