Confessions of a Conflicted Son of the Emerald Isle

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After a long St. Patrick’s Day weekend during which I was accused by some relatives of not being sufficiently enthusiastic about the festivities, I find myself once again thinking about my complicated relationship with my Irish heritage. (Disclosure: my mother was German, thus disqualifying me from full status in the clan.)

I was happy to learn that the Chicago River thawed so that it could be turned green. And I was equally happy to read that the Southside Irish Parade has been re-instated. In seems like a wholesome family event where kids get their faces painted, their parents get to wear kitschy hats, and politicians, all Irish for the day,  get a chance to press the flesh. St. Patrick’s Day parades everywhere have become a much more reliable rite of spring that the free-floating Easter weekend.  St. Patrick’s Day, always four days before the vernal equinox, is an opportunity to express our pent-up enthusiasm for the arrival of warmer weather, though this year it’s been a bigger challenge.

Of course, the Southside parade was halted for a number of years after it had become a family-unfriendly, Mardi-Gras style orgy of drunkenness attracting participants from the suburbs and even out-of-state. Why this kind of pog mo thoin debauchery has persisted as the chief identifier of Irish culture in American is enigmatic and embarrassing. The members of this big branch of the Irish-American family tree have produced more negative images than hostile outsiders might have been able to come up with. Thomas Nast, the late 19th century anti-Tammany Hall political cartoonist who mercilessly caricatured the Irish, would surely smile.

Despite these exhibitions of vulgarity, one has to stand in admiration of the Irish-American miracle, the way this once persecuted and marginalized immigrant group has become one of the most numerous (11% of the population) and prosperous (family incomes clearly above the average) of our hyphenated Americans. The Irish grabbed the traditional levers of immigrant advancement – politics, church, sports, unions – as well if not better than anyone other immigrant group. Resourceful, disciplined and loyal, Irish-Americans succeeded; their full place in American culture was symbolized by the selection of JFK as president in 1960, a little more than 100 years or four generations after the potato famine created the first wave of the great Irish diaspora.

But it has not been an unblemished triumph. As Noel Ignatiev writes in his How the Irish Became White, newly arrived and stigmatized 19th century Irish discovered that their inclusion in American life depended in part on their ability to separate themselves from other folks identified by nativist Americans as inferior, even subhuman. And that often meant African-Americans. Some Irish, their social advancement hanging in the balance, were easy converts to racist thinking.

After the Kennedy triumph, and closer to our present moment, many hyphenated Americans, the Irish included, responded to the “dog whistles” of the Nixon and Reagan Republican party. Republican strategist found success in subtly dividing the electorate along race rather than class lines. They created a politics of resentment in which “those people,” especially the “welfare queen,” were taking from hard-working Americans. “Busing” was a code word for reverse discrimination. “States rights” was a phrase for the preservation of the segregated status quo. Not surprisingly, many of the easily seduced “Reagan Democrats” – white, urban, working-class – were Irish. They looked with suspicion if not disdain on some activist Irish-American clergy, like the Berrigan Brothers and Chicagoan Monsignor John Egan, and anti-war politicians like Eugene McCarthy. It’s hard to know whether the fear-inducing, xenophobic, and self-righteous pronouncements from Irish-Americans Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity represent the persistent vitality of this movement or, hopefully, its last convulsive gasp. Salon writer Joan Walsh, she of noble Irish heritage and no traitor to her clan, provides extensive analysis of this phenomenon in What’s the Matter with White People: Making Our Way in the Next America.

This Archie-bunker mentality among some Irish took place amidst a liberal turn in Catholic theology and parish life. In What Parish Are You From? Lewis University historian Dr. Eileen McMahon has documented the tremendous role that the late 19th and 20th century parishes played in the well-being and rapid assimilation of European Catholics immigrants. While successful engines of social mobility, these large parishes were often institutions of personal repression. The priests’ authority was absolute. The vision of human nature was Jansenistic: the faithful were sinful and ordinary human appetites were to be suppressed through prayer and will power. Philomena, an 2014 Oscar nomination for Best Picture, powerfully conveys the dark vision of Catholicism Irish style. I am fortunate to have come of age when pastoral counseling replaced priestly and Biblical authority as the way to treat the challenges of being human. My guilt-laden father, born in 1916 to Irish immigrant parents, was not so lucky.

As a professor of English, I have spent a lifetime spent reading literature and this too is a factor in my relationship to my heritage. I know full-well and you probably do too the contributions that the Irish have made to Anglophone literature, but I am also mindful that many (Joyce, Wilde, Beckett) were self-exiles, preferring to write about Irish life from a safe distance. And the history of American literature is hard to imagine without  Irish-American writers. Chicagoan James T. Farrell, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Thomas Flanagan, and that’s just the Fs.

So in the spirit of cultural pride let me end by recommending a number of recent novels by Irish writers. If you didn’t get enough green over the weekend, they may fill the deficiency.

  • Colm Toibin, The Testament of Mary (Jesus’s mother speaks) & The Master (a fictional biography of novelist Henry James.
  • Roddy Doyle, The Guts, Just out so I haven’t read it, but it is a continuation of his 1990s Barrytown Trilogy which included The Commitments, which was made into a movie.
  • Colum McCann, Let the Great World Spin & Transatlantic
  • Joseph O’Neill, Netherlands

Both McCann and O’Neill were born in Ireland and now live in America. Both have written widely-praised “post 9/11” novels.

So, it’s two cheers for the Irish from me!

About Dr. Michael Cunningham

Dr. Michael Cunningham is Director of the Lewis University Arts & Ideas program.

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