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Rings of Fire

James O'Brien

I gave my brothers their Claddagh rings on St. Patrick's Day weekend a couple of years ago. We'd spent the previous six months listening out of the corners of our shell- and rock-shocked ears to 9/11 stories about Irish-American kids and New York heroes and smartass brothers who'd lost their smartass brothers, so I figured it was now or maybe never.

I wasn't sure what I wanted to say to my smartass Irish-American-what-ever brothers but I wanted to say it once and for all and I wanted to say it with a ring in case something happened to one of us, or in case we found ourselves standing in front of a casket or two having never actually said what we meant to say all these years, through all the jokes and bitch sessions and wise-guy e-mails and quoted song lyrics and phone calls to talk about the game.

I bought my brothers their Claddagh rings on a sun-slushy St. Patrick's Day eve afternoon at Irish on Grand, the groovy little Irish shop in St. Paul that was, at the time, co-owned by my brother's wife's cousin Molly and her husband Dermot. I lugged my dead-to-the-world-and-drooling three-year-old daughter's carcass out of the car, propped her up on the glass showcase that holds holy cards, rosaries, Ogham stones, Celtic crosses, sun-catchers, and other mystical knickknacks, and told Molly what I needed.

She didn't bat an eye or make a joke. She reached down, cracked open the cabinet behind the counter, and pulled out a small felt case, at the end of which was propped a tiny silver ring with open hands holding a crowned heart. I bought three, for 25 bucks each, guessing at the sizes--small for me; small for Jay, my older brother by four years; and medium for Terry, my younger brother by four years.

I gave my brothers their Claddagh rings at bars, to the sound of bands. The Dubliner Pub and Gaelic Storm, Friday. First Avenue and Ike Reilly, Saturday. The Dubliner is a real Irish bar. It's set alone on the corner of University and Vandalia in St. Paul. It's got Christmas lights year-round, the requisite Irish beer and whiskey signs, and a portrait of John and Bobby Kennedy called Brothers United that hung in thousands of Catholic American homes in the '70s, including the one my brothers and I grew up in.

At the Dubliner that Friday, a massive white tent had been erected in the parking lot, and portable heaters were set up on the concrete to fend off the March chill. A couple of thousand down-jacketed Friday night lights were dancing and drinking to Gaelic Storm, who raged with a last-night-on-Earth-so-let's-mosh fury, playing fiddle- and bodhran-spiked tunes like "Drink the Night Away," "She Was the Prize," and "After Hours at McGann's." My friend Paul and I came late, ran into my friend Theresa and her friend Laura, and the four of us made our way into the front bar and bought shots of Tullamore Dew, the Irish whiskey a musician friend of mine taught me how to drink earlier that winter at the Dubliner.

Straight away, the Dew had me flirting with Theresa, who is my wife's age, and a woman from Galway, who was about my mom's age. Molly and Dermot came by, hand in hand, and the love was ramping up to giddy green levels when we finally saw Jay. He was frazzled, having come over from the Viking Bar, where he and his wife Kim had been imbibing in their regular Friday happy hour with the Front Porch Swingin' Liquor Pigs. He had no money, but he'd talked the Dubliner doorman into letting him into the bar to find me or an ATM. We scrounged up some cover charge, got him squared away, and got him a shot of Dew. We were both drunk, happy, holding full shot glasses, and the crowd was passing the Gaelic Storm fiddle player overhead when I gave him his ring.

At First Avenue the next night, we were with our adopted brother Reilly, who, yes, we see something of ourselves in--husband, father, friend, worker, rocker, writer, drinker, struggler, Claddagh ring-wearer--so much so that it's more collaboration than listening when he sings stuff like, "Cars and girls and drinks and songs make this world spin around." This night, I was drinking water and standing by the soundboard with my wife Jean (who wears a gold Claddagh ring I gave her before we were married) and Jay close by.

Terry was perched on the stairway above us with his wife Shannon, videotaping the show. After the set finished and the room started to empty, I made my way through the exiting crowd, climbed the stairs, and put my hand on his shoulder. We shook our heads, blown away one more time by the almost naive-for-the-times passion of Reilly and his band. We were both sober and happy and damn near weeping when I gave him his ring.

When I gave my brothers their Claddagh rings, I told them the same thing. "You are my brother. I love you. This ring has super powers. Whenever this world gets you down, remember..."

I didn't get to finish, because in both cases we mutually smothered my blabbing with boy hugs. But I want to finish, because I hear stories every day about brothers who don't like each other or don't talk to each other. This isn't that story. This is a story about three brothers who have fought with each other and called each other names, but who still like being with each other. This is a story about three brothers who sit in bored rooms and cadavered client meetings and cold-blooded classrooms, but whose silver rings, worn or not, trump every brass ring they've ever heard of.

This is a story about three brothers who may worry about their kids, money, marriages, parents, careers, and fading jump shots, but not about their stuck-with-each-other love. This is a story about three brothers who keep each other honest by making sure none of them gets too down or cute or self-involved or big for his britches, and who are always there for each other, like the time the middle one needed an ending to a story he was having trouble ending, a story he didn't want to end. He'd written everything he could think to write about the Claddagh rings, but he wondered if they and those nights meant the same thing to his smartass brothers as they did to him. So he e-mailed them and, not for the first or last time, asked for help.

"I remember that band, that friend of yours, the Kennedy pictures on the wall at the Dubliner and not wanting to go home," wrote the oldest. "I remember saying this ring is too small, I gotta get it sized, still do, means the world to me."

"It's on my right hand now, even though I should be wearing it on my left, according to my love status," wrote the youngest. "It won't fit on the left. It's slightly bent upward, and I stopped wearing it for a short time out of fear that it would catch on something and rip my finger from my hand. It means a lot to me; I didn't exchange it for the correct fit because I wanted the original one. You gave it to me at First Ave. after Ike's last show there, told me that you loved me and that this would be a reminder of that (or something).

"Whenever I get the urge to hang myself, I think about the Claddagh ring until it goes away."


Jim Walsh can be reached at [email protected] or 612.372.3775.

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