Clearing the Eire

Maureen Dezell and Tom Hayden honestly explore what it means to be both Irish and American.

"Each year in early March, the mud thaws, the days lengthen, and advertisers roll out images of shamrocks, party-hearty leprechauns, and freckle-faced inebriates," Maureen Dezell writes in the opening pages of Irish America: Coming into Clover.

This annual deluge of kelly-green ethnic slurs, painted on tavern windows and sprinkled across family newspapers, can mean only one thing: "St. Patrick's Day is fast approaching." For Dezell, an Irish-American journalist at the Boston Globe, it was America's drunken and demeaning celebration of the Irish saint that set her on the journey of inquiry that would become her book.

In the late '70s, not long after Irish South Boston had made an ugly name for itself in the protracted battle over school busing, she was teaching night school to assorted dark-skinned foreigners. Intending to honor her heritage, they asked her to accompany them to the St. Patrick's Day parade in Southie. Dezell was mortified. She knew that the inebriated mob was more likely to shout racist slurs at her students than to invoke the saint's blessing upon them. If this was Irishness, who wanted it? But surely there was a way of being Irish without being either bigoted or boozy, and Dezell set out to document it.

Tom Hayden, author of Irish on the Inside: In Search of the Soul of Irish America, had a similar coming-to-consciousness. A political radical who protested the Vietnam War at the Democratic Convention of 1968, he had gone to trial as a member of the notorious Chicago Seven. Hayden was Irish on both sides--his mother was a Garity--but the Irish he knew were politically conservative and downright racist. His parish priest at Shrine of the Little Flower in suburban Detroit was, in a spectacular coincidence, the famous anti-Semitic priest Father Coughlin, star of America's radio waves. The authoritarian mayor of the city that arrested and tried Hayden was Richard Daley, Irish-American chieftain of a powerful political machine. Swarms of the cops who beat the protesters were Irish-American as well.

Hayden had no interest in calling these folks his blood brothers, nor in investigating his assimilated family's lost Irish roots. But then he took a trip to Northern Ireland--and found Irish Catholics campaigning for civil rights, and singing "We Shall Overcome." The Catholic citizens of one Northern Ireland city, battered and beaten by British soldiers and Ulster terrorists alike, had renamed their besieged home Free Derry, after the Berkeley Free Speech movement. Here were Irishmen, at last, that Hayden could embrace.

Both writers are eager to offer up an alternative history of Irish America. While acknowledging its racism and problems with alcohol, they demolish the sentimentality Dezell calls "Eiresatz" and chronicle the heroics of its radicals and subversives. Dezell's book is a journalistic exploration of the Irish in America from Famine adversity to today's suburban prosperity, post-political precinct and post-parish. She's particularly good on the neglected stories of Irish-American women and the changing relationship of Irish Americans with the Catholic church.

Hayden, by contrast, constructed a memoir interwoven with family history. Undertaking a search for "invisible ancestral influences" who might have inspired his progressive politics, he even uncovers the meaning of his name. His namesake was Thomas Emmet, a friend of Thomas Paine and an early Irish emigrant who agitated both for the freedom of American slaves and the delivery of Ireland from its colonial masters in England. Likewise, Hayden learned that a great-grandfather, Emmet Owen Garity, who fled the famine in Ireland on a coffin ship, turned his Wisconsin homestead into a stop on the Underground Railroad.

Dezell breaks new ground in reporting on the Irish diaspora beyond the strongholds in northeastern cities. Alas, though she details an early Irish settlement in Butte, Montana ("in 1900 one of the most Irish towns in the United States"), Arizona's Irish occupy no place in her book, apart from a mention of Margaret Higgins Sanger. An Irish American radical who fought with the Catholic Church and the U.S. government over birth control--and won --Sanger settled in Tucson later in life; the local Planned Parenthood clinic bears her name.

Both writers offer a tantalizing taste of the story of the San Patricios, a battalion of Irish immigrants soldiering for America in its war on Mexico. Their Protestant officers treated the men badly, and the Catholic troops found themselves identifying with the Catholic peasants on the Mexican side. No doubt tempted as well by offers of $10 bonuses and land, the St. Patrick's Battalion switched sides and, Dezell tells us, fought under "a green flag with an image of St. Patrick on one side and the Mexican eagle on the other." Captured and hanged as traitors by the U.S. at the end of the war, the San Patricios are remembered as heroes in Mexico.

Dezell and Hayden alike are at pains to acknowledge Irish-American racism, but both also bring an informed class analysis to the discussion. Dezell finds that a closer inspection of the Southie busing riots reveals a class divide even within Irish America--shanty versus lace curtain. The children of Southie were working class and poor; they were to be shipped out of their close-knit Irish neighborhood at the behest of an Irish-American elite whose own children escaped integration via expensive private schools.

Hayden recounts how the famine immigrants to America in the middle 19th century were reviled in some of the same ways that African-Americans were: routinely refused employment, relegated to the worst urban neighborhoods, despised as an inferior race, pictured as apes in newspaper illustrations (those pictures are the ancestors of the drunken leprechauns in today's ads). Irish-American racism grew out of economic competition.

"The Irish have been both victims and victimizers on the basis of race," Hayden writes. "Their racial attitudes have been aggravated by their class position as competitors with minorities at the bottom of the ladder."

The Irish began elbowing their way onto that bottom rung in "Black '47," after a blight turned Ireland's potatoes black. The Great Hunger, An Gorta Mor, looms large in any history of Irish America because without it there would have been no Irish America. The Irish were no plucky adventurers eager to set sail across the Atlantic. They were refugees fleeing starvation, pushed out of their own country by colonial masters. While the native people lay dying by the millions, the English blithely shipped beef and grain back home.

That catastrophe, just a century and a half ago, dramatically shaped Irish-American culture. Even the harsh piety of the Irish Catholic Church was a byproduct of the famine, Dezell writes. Terrified survivors flocked to the church in numbers unheard of before the disaster. Sexual sins were the worst because they might create more mouths to feed. Authoritarian priests ruled parishes that served as refuges from American discrimination.

The assimilation that Hayden so deplores has its origins in the famine as well. Impoverished immigrants seeking to survive in a new land eventually became more American than the Americans. Their children turned toward conservatism, as far away as possible from the memory of their ancestors' desperation. Thus we have Patrick Buchanan, descendant of Irish immigrants, railing against today's brown-skinned border-crossers.

Both Dezell and Hayden exhort Irish Americans instead to revel in their history, and allow it to inform their politics. Dezell quotes Kevin Whelan, who directs Notre Dame's Irish Studies program in Dublin. One way to see the famine, Whelan says, is "as an example of the kind of man-made disaster with which the peoples of colonized countries are regularly afflicted to this day." From there it's a short leap to see parallels between the Irish experience and "the political and economic disasters which drive millions of immigrants to Europe and the U.S."

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