Boston now more than a feeling

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Yeah, down by the river
Down by the banks of the River Charles (aw, that’s what’s happenin’ baby)
That’s where you’ll find me
Along with lovers, fuggers, and thieves (aw, but they’re cool people)
Well I love that dirty water
Oh, Boston, you’re my home

– Dirty Water, The Standells (1966),

(traditionally played when any Boston team wins)

After so much coverage of the Boston bombings, so many stories of devastation and reports of carnage, somebody mentioned on the television that Jane Richard, a six year old girl who lost her leg in the first explosion, is a keen step dancer. Since turning three, she’s been a student at the Clifden Academy of Irish Dance in the south of the city. When the World Championships came to town last month, she was an awestruck spectator, gazing up at the older kids hoofing across the stage at the Hynes Centre, just a block away from the spot where she stood to watch the end of the marathon with her family last Monday afternoon.

That small byte of information was enough. Jane Richard was now more than a name on the screen, more than another entry on that lengthy list of 180 who were so grievously wounded. Jane suddenly became Janey, a red-headed sparkplug of a child in an elaborate, decorative dress, jaunting around a hall with a dozen others just like her, their parents filming them with cameras and phones, taking part in one of the great formative rituals of an Irish-American upbringing. One of the firefighters who came upon the horror on Boylston Street recognised the little girl because he’d seen her Irish dancing with his own daughter in Milton.

When news started to come through of the attack on the Boston Marathon last Monday afternoon, nobody would have needed to be told this is the most Irish city in America. We didn’t have to hear that the now infamous Boylston Street is the location of the Irish Consulate and of an Irish pub called Lir to remember that the bond between these two places goes way back. Boston is where the first St. Patrick’s Day Parade was held in 1737 and, on Evacuation Day during the Revolutionary War in 1776, anybody trying to get through the continental lines had to know that the password was “St Patrick”. Our histories have long been intertwined.

Even on race day when the city is always awash with runners and tourists from all over the world, it wasn’t surprising that two of the three people who died, Jane Richard’s eight year old brother Martin, and freckle-faced Krystle Campbell (29), happened to be Irish-American. No other city boasts such a concentration of people with genuine Irish heritage so that type of death toll was, unfortunately, going to be inevitable. Of course, the irony is that when the Irish first arrived in Boston in huge numbers in the 19th century, the Brahmin elite didn’t want them to stay.  The Irish made it their home anyway, evincing the same sort of belligerent attitude that still informs the city’s spirit and which has served it particularly well during these past few difficult days.

I’ve never lived in Boston but my father-in-law’s entire extended family is based in and around the city and I’ve spent a lot time there over the years.  When Irish people ask me what it’s like, I don’t have to think very hard. “It’s like Cork,” I tell them and, of course, I mean that as a compliment. It’s charmingly parochial, entertainingly quirky (at a certain point you have to drive south in order to go north!), and always, always carries a massive chip on its shoulder about a bigger, more glamorous city down the road. Bostonians regard New York with the same suspicion Corkonians reserve for Dublin. Sure, Manhattan may be the finance and media capital of the country but Boston is the capital of the People’s Republic of Massachusetts, the centre of its very own universe.

The rivalry between the two cities is most magnified in the sporting arena. It wouldn’t be uncommon to be stuck behind a car on the Massachusetts Turnpike and to spy a bumper sticker of a little boy in a Boston Red Sox cap peeing on the New York Yankees’ logo. Think Celtic-Rangers without the sectarian horribleness. Last Tuesday night then, Yankee Stadium echoed to Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline”, a song that has become part of the game-day experience at the Red Sox’ Fenway Park (built by a Derryman named Charles Logue). The Yankee fans sang along lustily in one of those enduring moments when historic sporting enmity melting into  true solidarity.

In many ways, sport is the beating heart of the city. The Sox, the Pats (New England Patriots), the Bruins and the Celtics (named to reflect the Hibernian heritage of the fanbase). They live and die by the fortunes of their teams and the passing of the seasons.  Within 48 hours of somebody thinking they could strike fear into the heart of Boston with this attack, TD Garden was packed to the rafters for the Bruins’ ice hockey game against the Buffalo Sabres. Both teams wore decals displaying the slogan “Boston Strong” on their helmets, and when it came time to sing the national anthem at the first sporting event since the bombs struck, 17,000 people cleared their throats and nearly took the roof off the place. Defiant, I think, is the word.

 “Two different friends texted me the identical message yesterday: They messed with the wrong city,” wrote Dennis Lehane, the novelist and native of Dorchester, the same neighbourhood now grieving for the Richard’s family. “This wasn’t a macho sentiment. It wasn’t “Bring it on” or a similarly insipid bit of posturing. The point wasn’t how we were going to mass in the coffee shops of the South End to figure out how to retaliate. Law enforcement will take care of that, thank you. No, what a Bostonian means when he or she says “They messed with the wrong city” is “You don’t think this changes anything, do you?”  Trust me, we won’t be giving up any civil liberties to keep ourselves safe because of this. We won’t cancel next year’s marathon.”

The Boston accent is, even the natives admit, harsh and unpleasant on the ear. The butt of so many jokes on national television through the decades, the missing r and the dropped g are almost badges of authenticity, worn with stubborn pride. “The accent is more of an attitude than an accent,” said Ben Affleck, who grew up across the Charles River in Cambridge. Well, the attitude was something we all saw up close in the footage of the immediate aftermath of the bombings, all those people rushing towards the smoke and the blood and the devastation.

At a time when nobody knew whether there was going to be a third, a fourth or a fifth device, dozens of cops and race stewards ran into the danger rather than away from it. So did many of the runners, shrugging off the crippling fatigue of the 26th mile of a race, peeling off their singlets and t-shirts to use as tourniquets. Whatever else this person or persons hoped to achieve by blowing up Boston, they have to know now this is the calibre of people they are dealing with. They won’t run and they definitely won’t hide.

Last Monday, the city bent very briefly but it didn’t break. And anybody who has ever spent time there would have expected nothing less from a city that has always been a charming mess of contradictions.

It prides itself on being tough and blue-collar (American for working-class) yet has more universities per square foot than any other city in the country, with 53 institutions of higher learning in the metropolitan area at last count. Like many, Lingzi Lu, the third person to die in the attack, had come from Shenyang, China to study mathematics and statistics at Boston University. She made the short walk down from the campus to watch the finish of the marathon. Why? Because that is what you do on Patriots’ Day, a landmark event in the city calendar, a joyous occasion often compared by boastful locals to spending New Year’s Eve in Times Square.

It should be noted Patriots’ Day is not your traditionally dull Irish bank holiday. The Red Sox play a home game at Fenway that kicks off the celebrations at 11am while around Copley Square hundreds of thousands gather to watch the concluding stages of the marathon. After the typically unforgiving New England winter, here, on the third Monday in April is what’s supposed to be the official start of spring, a day to get out and about and to look forward to summer. Originally, established in order to celebrate the Battles of Lexington and Concord, the first battles of the Revolutionary War, it has turned into a sporting festival, as much as a remembrance of the city’s unique contribution to the story of America.

Not that the history isn’t taken seriously. This is where the Pilgrims built their beloved city on the hill. This is the site of the Boston Tea Party when they threw the East India Tea company’s produce into the harbor to protest taxation without representation, the birthplace of the revolution that would send the British sailing home. Many of those visiting for the marathon last weekend took time out to walk the “Freedom Trail”, a two and a half mile stretch that stops at the house of Paul Revere who rode through the night warning that the British troops were on the move, and Bunker Hill, where in a glorious defeat, the rebel militia proved they had the fighting credentials to take on a superior power.

This then is the town these terrorists, whoever or whatever they claim to represent, have picked a fight with. A place with a heritage hallmarked by courage, a tradition of overcoming adversity, and a people who didn’t back down when they were faced with the might of the empire where the sun never set. This week, they might have been bloodied but they remain proudly unbowed. Boston Strong.

(A version of this piece first appeared in the Irish Daily Mail on April 20th)
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