A Window on the Switzers – Frank McNally’s further reflections on a remarkable Irish-American

An Irishman’s Diary

The background of Mary Elizabeth Switzer, whose life we discussed here on Thursday, was an inversion of classic Irish stereotype. Her father, as I now know, was a Julius Switzer, a Palatine Protestant from Limerick. Her mother was Margaret Moore, a Catholic, from Cork.

You might be forgiven for assuming that the former would have fitted in better as an immigrant in late 19th-century Boston, where the “Brahmins” – old-monied WASPs – still ran most things. But despite his upmarket name, Julius Switzer was a Protestant in the Sean O’Casey tradition. He worked with his hands, was poor, and drank too much for his Cork in-laws’ liking.

There was also an echo of another playwright’s life. Like the patriarch in Eugene O’Neill’s family tragedy, thinly disguised in Long Day’s Journey into Night, Julius was blamed for his wife’s ill-health, and early death, from TB.

He eventually left for New York, taking only his son. In later life, Mary would not remember much about him. Her mentor instead became “Uncle Mike” Moore, himself a reformed drinker who had replaced alcohol with his new enthusiasms, socialism and revolution.

It was by now a good time to be Irish in Boston. Born with the 20th century, Mary Switzer was still a child when in 1909 a man called John F Fitzgerald – JFK's maternal grandfather – became mayor, overthrowing the old order.

In the meantime, Uncle Mike was also deeply involved in Ireland's struggles. Mary's biographer, Martha Lentz Walker, may not be entirely reliable on matters Irish. She has the Moores coming from "Inskiddy" (presumably Ringaskiddy), refers to Padraig "Pierce", and describes the "widow of Mayor Skeffington" addressing a meeting in Boston.

Some of those may have been Switzer’s faulty memories.

But the biographer also prefaces the chapter on family with what is billed as an “Irish saying”, viz: “Everybody works at our house, but my old man!” That’s definitely not something you’d see on a tea-towel in Carroll’s souvenir shop. On closer inspection, it seems to be the lyric of a 1905 Vaudeville hit.

Still, as confirmed years later to this newspaper, Uncle Mike did bring Mary to Irish classes. She was also made familiar with the ideas of Connolly, Pearse, Larkin, and Con Lehane (a 1930s IRA leader and later a Clann na Poblachta TD). Her biographer quotes her saying: "All of them at one time or another, with the exception of Pierce (sic), had been in Boston, sometimes secretly, often at our house".

En route to becoming the most senior female bureaucrat in US government, with an office nicknamed "Switzerland", Mary E never married. The one man who might have persuaded her was a well-named "Wright" McCormick, who had fought in the first World War and returned to become a journalist, while also working for The Friends of the Irish organisation. Alas, the romance ended tragically when he died in a mountaineering accident.

He must have been the same Wright McCormick who wrote a strangely elliptical, Synge-inspired short story for a 1914 issue of The Harvard Monthly. The Three Cards is the tale of a young girl called Máire who sets out for the fair one day to sell butter and eggs.

One the way, she meets an old man juggling three cards – the first a dazzling white, the second fiery red, the third having the “blackness of death” – who asks her to choose one. She refuses, but soon meets an old woman who also has three cards and repeats the invitation.

Again the girl refuses, whereupon the old woman laughs and throws the cards in the air. When the red one lands at Maire’s feet, she runs away saying, “No, no! I did not choose!” Later, at the fair, she meets a handsome stranger, who doesn’t buy her eggs but steals a kiss. And from there the story appears to end happily, if mysteriously, with no further updates on the couple but instead a poetic reflection on night, and light, and the sea.

No, I don’t know what it means either. And I’m sure it has nothing to do with a curious detail in Switzer’s interview with this newspaper’s Irishman’s Diarist in 1957.

During a previous visit to Dublin, he was told, she had noticed the school of inner-city card-players that used to assemble on the steps of the Custom House daily, when weather was good.

The scene must have been charmed her.

Sometime after she went back to Boston, one day, a parcel arrived in the Custom House post. It was 12 packs of “plastic (and costly)” cards, to be forwarded to the lads outside, “with the compliments of an American friend whom none of them even noticed as she watched them play”.