THE IRISH IN AMERICA
Edited by Michael Coffey
With text by Terry Golway
272 pages, $40
I remember reading U.S. Ambassador to Ireland William V. Shannon's scholarly, animated classic, "The American Irish: A Political and Social Portrait," 30 years ago. The style and format of this new book, "The Irish in America," is far different but equally good. It is a blend of black-and-white and color photos and is filled with great writing, a worthy successor to Shannon. It is the companion volume to the PBS series "Long Journey Home: The Irish in America."
"The Irish In America" is a big book in every way and a great gift for Christmas. Coffee table size, it has wonderful essays by Frank McCourt, Pete Hamill, Maeve Binchy, Peggy Noonan, James Carroll, Peter Quinn, Thomas Flanagan, Mary Higgins Clark, Jason Robards and others, that inform the basic themes of Irish life in America. These include chapters on "The Great Famine"; "The Parish: The Building of a Community"; "The Precinct: Working From the Inside"; "The Work: Where the Irish Did Apply"; "The Players: Irish on Stage," and "The New Irish: Keeping a Culture Alive." This fine effort is the work of Michael Coffey, a scholar of Irish studies at Publishers Weekly, and reporter Terry Golway of the New York Observer.
I was drawn first to the middle of the book, to Thomas Flanagan's contribution, "The Irish in John Ford's Films." Flanagan is one of our best American writers and he has achieved great success with his trilogy of Irish novels over the past 15 years: "The Year of the French," "The Tenants of Time" and "The End of the Hunt." He has a marvelous sketch of movie director John Ford (1894-1973), ne John Feeny, born to immigrants from Galway.
Flanagan is wonderfully perceptive about Ford, who directed "The Informer," based on Liam O'Flaherty's novel, with Victor McLaglen; "The Quiet Man" with John Wayne and Maureen O'Hara, and "The Grapes of Wrath" with Henry Fonda. Ford said about "Grapes," a film of poverty and exodus, that it depicted "wandering on the roads to starvation -- part of the Irish tradition." Flanagan says Ford "presents us with one of art's perennial mysteries: how someone who was in many ways coarse and sentimental could create works that, while often exhibiting the same traits, are at their frequent best luminous, enchanting and profound."
The more orderly way to read this book (but certainly not required) is to begin at the beginning. There you will find a summary of the famine years, with essays by Frank McCourt, recent winner of the Pulitzer Prize for "Angela's Ashes," and Robert Scally, professor of history at New York University. McCourt writes in his engaging way of the scandalous waste of food in the States and his own near-starvation in Ireland. Scally details the importance of Liverpool, England -- it was cheaper to go there from Ireland 150 years ago than to travel directly to either the United States or Canada.
How large a catastrophe was the Irish potato blight in the 1840s? "A census of Ireland in 1851 counted 6.5 million people -- there had been 8.1 million 10 years earlier." So many died. If you cannot read Cecil Woodharn-Smith's account, "The Great Hunger," read this latest evocation. Charles Trevelyan, the British treasury official in charge of relief operations at the time, who took Sir Robert Peel's place, had this graceless remark to make: "The great evil with which we have to contend is not the physical evil of the famine, but the moral evil of the selfish, perverse and turbulent character of the people."
Asenath Hatch Nicholson, a New Yorker who traveled to Dublin to help the starving Irish in 1849, saw things differently: "Reader, if you never have seen a starving human being, may you never! In my childhood I had been frightened with stories of ghosts and had seen actual skeletons; but imagination had come short of the sight of this man . . . emaciated to the last degree."
Much of the story of the Irish involves gloom. In fact, Sen. Patrick Daniel Moynihan is quoted as having asked, after the death of JFK, "What's the use of being Irish if you don't know the world is going to break your heart?" Some 110 years earlier than John F. Kennedy's death, the storm cloud of the famine decimated the home places and precipitated new lives for the millions who emigrated. Most were young men and women who left Ireland. And they knew that they weren't in for an easy time. Men became hod carriers or day laborers, women domestics.
In America, the Irish were helped immeasurably by what Daniel Greeley characterized as the importance of their Catholic faith. "Irish Catholics are more certain than other Americans that life is not chance, that there is purpose in human existence, that love is at the heart of the universe, and that prayers are heard." Why did they need their beliefs in the new country?
"Who does not know," thundered the Chicago Tribune in 1855, "that the most depraved, debased, worthless and irredeemable drunkards and sots which curse the community are Irish Catholics?" Or consider "Thomas Nast offer(ing) a graphic illustration of nativist fears in a cartoon that showed a wave of bishop-alligators landing on American shores to ravage decent Americans."
It was against this wave of Know Nothingism that the immigrants banded together, led by the Catholic hierarchy and clergy. Catholic parishes were built with the pennies and nickels of the congregation. One knew the effort was finally a success when the 1944 movie "Going My Way," featuring Bing Crosby as Father O'Malley and Barry Fitzgerald as the old pastor, Father Fitzgibbon, won Academy Awards. On screen they ran the pretend-Hollywood parish St. Dominic's, and all America applauded. It took time and art, but prejudice was defeated.
Or consider the development of the political precinct, with the Irish working from the inside. This is not to say that "these networks were purely public-spirited. Plenty of shady deals were going on, ranging from the 'honest graft' that Tammany leader George Washington Plunkitt spoke of . . . to kickback schemes from the various vice peddlers." But it wasn't politics as usual, a mere desporting of iniquities. There was some heart and concern for one's neighbor included in the business. In short, the Irish blood instinct for politics in America is in the bone, and it is detailed minutely. Among others, there are stories of Irish-American women activists Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, the head of the American Communist Party; Margaret Higgins Sanger, pioneer in the birth control movement, and Mary Harris (Mother) Jones, the union organizer.
All this is just for starters. There's something for everyone in the volume. The last chapter, "The New Irish: Keeping a Culture Alive," is a look to the future, featuring, among others, the story of "Riverdance" with Michael Flatley; Roddy Doyle, author of the Dublin Trilogy, "The Commitments," "The Snapper" and "The Van"; Sinead O'Connor; Van Morrison; Bono, and Seamus Heaney, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1996.
There's a look-back tribute from Irish Times columnist and novelist Maeve Binchy, and some last laughs by a New York City Irishman, Denis Leary. Leary offers a glossary of what being Irish means to him. Two examples:
"Spring, Irish: Look, I've been to Ireland. I grew up in America around Irish people, and I've never smelled anything even remotely resembling the odor of this green-and-white-striped concoction. You want a soap that smells Irish? Pour half a glass of Jameson and a pint of Guinness in a stopped-up sink, add a dash of milk and a slice of cheese, and then dip your face in it for 45 seconds. That's what being Irish really smells like.
"Clinton, Bill: Big, loud, brazen, short-tempered, stubborn, overweight and underread guy. And he claims he's only half Irish?"