To Hell With King Billy and God Bless the Pope
The most visceral connection I have (and this makes my mom, who is French, roll her eyes and sigh deeply) is to my Irish roots. It's hard to know exactly why this is. I have friends who can claim more Irish blood than me, yet they care nothing about it. There I am, though, reading the Irish Times website every day, stacking up Irish novels on my bookshelves at home, and driving five hours so I can spend an Irish-language weekend at some out-of-the-way convent.Part of it is my dad's fault. He was the one playing those insufferable Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem records when I was a kid so that, before I even knew what it meant, I was screaming at the top of my lungs rhymes like, "Up the long ladder and down the short rope, to hell with King Billy and God bless the Pope, if that doesn't do, we'll tear 'em in two, and send 'em to hell with their red, white, and blue." Still, these days, even my dad cares little next to me. There's some kind of connection I'm looking for, I suppose, a crucial piece in the jigsaw puzzle we're all trying to put together for ourselves and I'm convinced that it's got something to do with my Irish roots.My friends look at me funny, and I admit that sometimes I'm embarrassed. I say that the Clancy Brothers are insufferable when the fact of the matter is, I listen to them plenty (although I listen to better Irish music more). After all, Irish-Americans, especially fourth generation Irish-Americans, are supposed to be assimilated. Read in the paper about the ethnic masses in this country and likely you won't be reading about Irish-Americans. Instead, there are stories of Vietnamese-Americans slugging it out over a photograph of Ho Chi Minh hanging behind a shopkeeper's register in San Francisco's Little Saigon. Or Chinese-Americans trying to figure out what to do in the wake of revelations that some of their own may have stolen nuclear secrets, and stolen them for free, out of loyalty to the Communist government they supposedly left behind.Meanwhile, Irish-Americans get specials on PBS with warm-and-fuzzy titles like "The Long Journey Home," whose narrative suggests a monolithic struggle between what it calls "the potato people" and their evil oppressors. Irish-American history is portrayed as a kind of unchecked re-conquest worthy of an expensive companion volume with lots of glossy photos.The Irish themselves react to all of this with both pride and dismissive irony, saying that we've become "more Irish than the Irish," which only goes to demonstrate that for all of their longevity in this country and for all of their phenomenal success, Irish-Americans still have every bit the complicated relationship with the place they are from, with the identity they have come here to claim. We remain, as a group, just as many of us are as individuals, insecure.An example of this might be an article I wrote just a few days before the Good Friday Agreement that established the terms of "peace" in Northern Ireland in April 1998 (unfortunately, for now "peace" is still in quotes there). It reviewed the performance of an insanely popular bar band that specializes in Irish drinking songs. Having attended their show with some friends, I became so frustrated and angry I left midway through the second set, gritting my teeth and muttering to myself all the way home. Their shtick is entirely founded on the tired clich of the Irishman as drunkard. Their band name, Wylde Nept, derives from what they themselves describe as a Celtic "potion"; their CD name invokes the Irish vernacular for liquor, "a drop." They encourage their audience with shouts of "Fight, fight, fight! Drink, drink, drink!" and even encourage a drinking game that involves yelling, in a fitful kind of screech, "Sligo!" Sligo is a county in the west of Ireland invested with much the same mythological importance as the American West. The band invariably mispronounced the name before trudging on to the next drinking song.(In fairness to the band, that was a couple years ago. I haven't seen them since and their show may be entirely different now.)My review, itself a kind of fitful screech, provoked as much response as any other piece that had previously appeared in the paper's five years. I was accused of being ignorant, politically correct, and a "morality monger" hell-bent on wiping out all sincere attempts at fun. Some responded to my argument that such infuriatingly simple-minded representations of Irish culture-like those perpetrated by Wylde Nept, for instance-have consequences. After all, the United States, through George Mitchell and the political pressure imposed by Irish-American lawmakers like Ted Kennedy, had a crucial role to play in brokering the peace deal in Northern Ireland. The president of an organization impressively calling itself The Hawkeye Area Grand Gaelic Isles Society shot back that if I had investigated the matter, I might have discovered that the members of Wylde Nept all quietly contributed money to the peace efforts in Northern Ireland. I hadn't investigated the matter, of course, because I didn't think it mattered. But it was true that if the letter writers' anger seemed out of proportion ("evil witch hunter" was the most over-the-top epithet slung in my direction), then so, perhaps, was mine. If I'm going to search for my roots, celebrate my roots, then I want to do so rigorously. I want to know more than clichs and invented traditions.I had happened, unsuspecting, on a cultural fissure of sorts, where a crucial sense of identity was being contested and the consequences weren't to be felt only in some bombed-out ghetto across the Atlantic. It matters enormously to my dad when he confronts his cousin Tom over the issue of the IRA, as he did at the recent wedding of one of his ten children. Over the years, Tom, a well-to-do lawyer, has taken some of his money and posted it with full knowledge and deliberation to groups like Noraid, a front for the gunmen of the IRA. Taking the classic line spelled out by Irish historian Tim Pat Coogan, he says smugly, "Sure they're bullies, but they're our bullies." Dad's face burns. "Terrorists" is the word he prefers, or perhaps "murdering thugs." For my part, I'm still trying to figure out which part of "our" is really ours. Seamus Heaney argues that "our capacity to live in two places at the same time and in two times at the one place" is what makes people Irish. It wouldn't be difficult to extend at least the first part of that claim to Irish-Americans, who are almost casual in their willingness to accept the hardships of poor Catholics in West Belfast as their hardships.All of this, very begrudgingly, is to echo the sentiments of Irish Times columnist Nuala O'Faolain, whose essay, "Looking for Liberation From Future and Past," ran approximately a month after the Good Friday Agreement. Traveling in the US on a book tour, she had the opportunity to meet with many Irish-Americans who were busy, as she put it, with their "gentle pursuits." With exactly this sort of snobbish and patronizing language, O'Faolain, herself not a native of the North, took them to task for not adequately understanding the complexities of the social and political environment there ("most people who have been in America for a while haven't much idea why there has been war in the first place") and for vaguely claiming more than what was theirs to claim. "The message was: don't end your quarrel with England because it is at the heart of my family piety."At the time, the essay put me in enough of a huff that I copied it and stored it away, while keeping it close enough that I might still harbor my grudge. O'Faolain, like many Irish, is too quick to condescend to Irish-Americans. Wasn't it just as pompous for her to make claims about my family's pieties as it was for me to make claims to her country's future? Maybe, but then, maybe not (it's so much different making claims "about" than it is making claims "to"). And re-reading her essay, I notice a passage that rings deeply true:"How will a deep strain in Irish-America express itself if Noraid and the like wither away? How will situations be found in which the emotions generated by governing myths, like the Famine ones, can be, as they need to be, rehearsed? It isn't easy to re-educate the feelings of a whole culture. The politics came from the feelings. Not much writing has caught the pain of the first Irish-Americans -- a pain covered up by a silence on the personal level as eloquent as the laments for Erin on the public level."I do hate to admit it, but O'Faolain is correct. I wouldn't even limit the scope of her conclusion to the "first" Irish-Americans but add subsequent generations, as well. We depend on the governing myths of our Irishness to make sense of who we are. The myths provide us images -- even horrific ones, like Famine-era peasants, their mouths grass-stained, starving by the side of the road -- to tell us where we're from. They provide us heroic figures like John F. Kennedy to tell us where we landed. And they provide us a few hard-boiled characters, like the tough Irish boxer or the drunk Irish sergeant, to tell us how we got there. If those myths are questioned, we react with all kinds of regrettable name-calling.Sometimes, though, the myths don't just fail but fall silent altogether. For instance, none of those stereotypes comes close to describing my immigrant ancestors, who came from Kerry and settled in the confusing backroads of Clinton County, Iowa -- a place where Wolfes no longer live and, in fact, always get lost. And on a recent trip to Listowel, County Kerry, the town engraved on my great-great-grandfather's headstone, my dad and I could dig up no evidence that he ever actually lived there.So where am I supposed to locate myself? When another Irish Times columnist, Fintan O'Toole, describes maps, he says they are descriptions of imagination, of memory, of desire -- not just topography -- and they are invariably "haunted by hidden presences and charged absences." So it is these days with our map -- by which I mean, of course, whatever it is that my family and I thought might guide us through to an understanding of where we are from and what it means to be Irish-American. It has been silenced or at least proved inadequate.