My Irish Uncle Was a Simple, Just Man Like St. Joseph

Jesus, Mary, and Joseph

I’ve heard the Irish use the names of the Holy Family as profanity, not unlike the way many Americans say, “Oh, God.” But on my Uncle Michael’s lips, these words sounded like a prayer of often-experienced wonder at life. Actually, the words were not so much on his lips as in his throat, since he had the Irishman’s way of inhaling as he spoke.

Uncle Mike was the oldest son of a poor County Cavan farm family of McGoverns. Michael immigrated to the U.S. after World War II. He was followed by his sister (my mother) when she was nineteen, then another brother, and then a sixteen-year-old sister. So four of the McGovern children came here, four remained in the Old Country, and two had died in childhood. Upon arrival, Uncle Mike was promptly drafted and served in Okinawa. Welcome to America!

I knew him as a husband, a father of four, and a worker. When speaking of his wife when she was not present he always referred to her as “my dearly beloved wife.” To me, he was a kind of St. Joseph.

An Available Man

When it came to children, he had the virtue of availability. He spoke to you like you had value—as if you and he were equals, despite the thirty-year age difference. He owned the home our family rented when we moved from the east to the west coast. Eventually, my parents had the money to purchase it from him.

One morning when I awoke, he, Uncle Sean (his brother), and my father had dug a trench from the street to the front of the house—new plumbing was going in. Somehow, by that afternoon, I was lying on my back next to Uncle Mike in the dark, spidery crawlspace beneath the house. Under his tutelage, I was cutting copper pipe, applying flux to it, and soldering pipe and fittings together with a little propane torch. At ten, I knew how to install pipes. I could not do it now.

One of us kids’ favorite expressions that Uncle Mike uttered upon completing a hard task of manual labor was “Who said it couldn’t be done?” Then he’d look around at us, making a good-natured accusation to one of us, “Was it you?” Then he’d ask another one of us: “Was it you?” We’d all deny it. Uncle Mike could accomplish anything.

Manly Piety

Once when I was about twelve I got to sleep over at his San Francisco home. The boys’ bedroom in the front of the house had two bunk beds—he had three sons, all younger than I. When it was bedtime and we were in our bunks, laughing our heads off for no particular reason, he came in and led us in bedtime prayers in his brogue: an Our Father, a Hail Mary, and a Glory Be (he used the form with the Holy Ghost). I was astonished because I never saw my parents pray beside grace before dinner and at the Mass. Not that they did not pray; I just did not know they did.

Youngman-to-Man

Mike worked in the City (what San Francisco was called if you lived in it or in its vicinity) for Pacific Gas and Electric. One morning when I was in college and my three roommates and I were sharing a basement apartment in the Castro District, we left for class and there on the corner was my Uncle Mike standing in a hole in the ground with a shovel in his hand directing a crew repairing a gas line. It was like a celebrity sighting.

The next year we moved into an apartment he owned on Dubose Street near Golden Gate Park. When my roommate Chris and I went there to inquire about it and to inspect the place, there was Uncle Mike single-handedly holding up an entire flight of stairs while an assistant was about to nail it into place. “Are you busy?” I asked ironically. I should have said, “Who said it couldn’t be done?”

Every once in awhile two of my roommates and I would drop by his home on Eighth Avenue in the early evening. He always welcomed us and regarded us respectfully. He’d send his son young Michael down the corner for a six-pack. (A few years later, young Michael inexplicitly and tragically drowned very early one Sunday morning while diving off the Pacific coast for abalone.) While young Michael was gone, Uncle Mike would give us each a shot of Irish whiskey. Taking a sip, he’d pronounce it good “sthuff.” Before long he’d fall asleep in his chair. That’s what an honest day’s labor will do to you.

The Passion According to Michael

Not long after that, Uncle Mike was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. I visited him once at his home when he was in the midst of chemotherapy. His wife was making him some soup which he could not keep down. He flatly said to me without any of his wonted humor, “Don’t ever get sick.”

Awhile later, I visited him at St. Mary’s Hospital. I had recently returned to the practice of the Catholic faith. I had in my pocket a nice Rosary my sister had given me. I rather coveted it. Uncle Michael was lying alone in bed. For some reason, I asked him if he would like to have it. He accepted it, thanked me, and said, “No one else has offered me anything like this.”

The next time I saw him was the day before he died. He was in his own bed at home. He did not speak but just looked at us with hollow eyes. Even though he was only in his 60s, he looked eighty or ninety, wasted away completely. I can only imagine the suffering he endured, fighting and losing that battle.

Affirmation

When Uncle Mike spoke about a living man, he’d often end his remark with “God bless ‘um.” When he spoke the name a person who had died, he always used the Irish Catholic tag, “God be good to ‘um.”

From my own experience of him, Uncle Mike was a kind of St. Joseph. A just man. A simple man. But also a skilled manual laborer who could buy, fix and flip a piece of real estate to support his family. A man who’d look a boy in the eye and treat him as an equal.

Philosopher Josef Pieper defines charity as an affirmation, the attitude that says to another, “It is good that you exist.” That is how Uncle Mike looked at me.