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History and Heritage

An Irish Handshake

Connecting to the past

St. Patrick's Day was always enthusiastically celebrated by my late father, Tom Brosnihan, who gleefully embraced any chance to reconnect with his Irish roots.

His innate gregariousness amplified on March seventeenth and he was known to leave a trail of green carnations held by adoring "colleens."

This past St. Patrick's Day night found me at Rhode Island Hospital visiting a friend on the eighth floor of the main building. My visit concluded, I stepped aboard an empty elevator and pushed "1" for the lobby. Within a few floors of descent the door opened and three people got in: a man and woman in their forties and a handsomely fit, older gentleman who I estimated was north of eighty.

The latter was a man of average height with classic Celtic looks including a full thatch of snow white hair, fair skin and grayish-blue eyes. I've seen that color peak through dark clouds on rainy days while visiting Ireland. I have also seen it in my own father's eyes. This gentleman was dressed neatly, sporting what appeared to be a well-preserved US Navy pea coat. It was a cousin to my dad's, which now hangs in my closet.

As the eldest of the trio stepped through the door he approached me directly and asked,

"Are you Irish?"

"Yes I am," I said. "My last name is Brosnihan."

"I knew it," he said with a grin, shooting out his right hand for a shake. I took his hand and admired the strong grip he generously employed. Then, to my astonishment, he changed the standard shake into a "soul grip," a locked thumb greeting that brought us into closer proximity. I didn't expect a man of his vintage to indulge such a maneuver-except when I shook my own father's hand.

Over many years my father and I developed a complex, multi-stage handshake that grew into an amusing performance each time we said hello or goodbye. No other family member ever got in on it. It was our unique greeting, and until a severe stroke ended my dad's life last June at age eighty-two, we unswervingly kept the tradition alive.

Our special shake started with a traditional hand clasp, moving on to that soul grip, then to a four-finger lock (the official three-stage "soul shake"). From there our thumbs joined and made a flying bird to shoulder height, settling back down into a potato mash of our closed fists. Our right hands then went to each other's right shoulders for a bump, then a forearm lock, back to the shoulders and finally, in honor of my son Teddy's arrival in 2009, a touch of each other's right index fingers.

We dutifully completed this exercise upon every occasion of meeting and departing unless decorum prohibited, such as at a funeral or other solemn event. We knew on those occasions, with the exchange of a quick glance, our greeting would be abbreviated to a traditional single-stage shake.

When my elevator mate went to the soul grip, he couldn't have realized he nearly triggered a very complicated greeting. I had to resist firing neurons and muscle memory to not proceed to the finger lock-and beyond. Instead I took a good look at his smiling, Irish-American face and saw my own ancestry in his twinkling eyes. His geniality was infectious and evidently natural. I quickly felt like I knew this guy. Even the feel of his handshake was familiar, so reminiscent of my dad's: remarkably firm, but not uncomfortably so, in its transfer of heartfelt goodwill.

"He delivered the inevitable question: "You ever been to Ireland?"

"Yes, four times-twice as a hitchhiker," I said.

"What county are your people from?" he pried not surprisingly.

" Kerry. How about you, what county is your family from?" I volleyed.
This is a photo collage of Steve Brosnihan.


"County Crazy," was the answer that came from the younger man in the elevator. A more accurate identification of the county came from the woman, though I didn't recognize the name. It was clear to me that the other two knew the older man well and were used to his inclination of befriending people on the merits of Irish ancestors and admirable handshakes. I watched my mother behave in a very similar manner on countless occasions as my dad shared his Hibernian warmth.

When the elevator reached the lobby, we got off and the other two members of the party proceeded directly to the revolving door exit, but my handshaking friend paused to talk a little more. As we chatted, I found myself admiring that pea coat, clearly genuine Navy issue, complete with anchor buttons and fitting like he received it earlier that day.

"That looks like a legit pea coat," I said.

"It is," replied my new pal.

"Did you serve at sea in the Navy, sir?"

"Yes I did. On the USS Lake Champlain. A carrier," he said with pride.

"That was during the Korean War?" I asked with confidence, that being when my father served on board a destroyer, the USS Irwin.

"Yes, that's right," he said, suddenly looking at me like I knew more than I should.

"Thank you for your service, sir," I said, following standard procedure of gratitude whenever I meet a veteran or active service member.

"You're welcome!" he said with beaming smile. He then pivoted to port to see that he was falling far behind his escorts.

Once more his strong hand was proffered and we again progressed from a hearty standard shake to that soul grip. This time he pulled me in close, gave me a solid pop on my right shoulder with his left hand and fired a final salvo of bonhomie by announcing, "You're a great guy!" He then moved off at flank speed, showing remarkable mobility for a man in his eighties. He folded into the revolving door and was gone. I never even got his first name.

As I proceeded down the corridor towards Hasbro Children's Hospital for further visiting, I was smiling broadly. The smile gained audio when I laughed at the wonderful two minutes or so that had just been added to my life. A wave of emotion briefly broke over the happiness and I sorely missed my dad. However the mist in my eyes quickly cleared as I realized my father had found a way to wish me happy St. Patrick's Day via someone wearing a color other than green. Dad's messenger was a fellow "bluejacket" veteran and that handshake told me all I needed to know.