Cracker Culture

Ian Jackman

  • Irish America by Reginald Byron
    Oxford, 317 pp, £40.00, November 1999, ISBN 0 19 823355 8
  • Remembering Ahanagran: Storytelling in a Family’s Past by Richard White
    Cork, 282 pp, IR£14.99, October 1999, ISBN 1 85918 232 1
  • From the Sin-é Café to the Black Hills: Notes on the New Irish by Eamon Wall
    Wisconsin, 139 pp, US $16.95, February 2000, ISBN 0 299 16724 0
  • The Encyclopedia of the Irish in America edited by Michael Glazier
    Notre Dame, 988 pp, £58.50, August 1999, ISBN 0 268 02755 2

Before he became Senator for New York, Daniel Patrick Moynihan was an academic and the author, with Nathan Glazer, of Beyond the Melting Pot: The Negroes, Puerto Ricans, Jews, Italians and Irish of New York City, published in 1963. Moynihan’s chief contribution was the chapter on the New York Irish, a lament which begins: ‘New York used to be an Irish city. Or so it seemed. There were sixty or seventy years when the Irish were everywhere. They felt it was their town. It is no longer, and they know it. That is one of the things bothering them,’ The great Irish achievements, he said, had been the American Catholic Church and the Democratic machine, but the Church was cautious and backward-looking and drained the people’s resources, while the Irish knew how to get political power, but not how to use it, and were interested only in climbing to the next rung of the ladder. Weakened by booze, softened by Catholicism, enervated by politics, Irish culture in America was in decline. Its major celebration, the St Patrick’s Day parade in New York City, served only to embarrass Irish people visiting America by its ‘Top o’ the Mornin’ sensibility. For their part, Irish Americans were embarrassed by the conditions they found when they visited Ireland.

The Irish may be less ethnically visible in New York than they were, but they haven’t disappeared. In the 1980 census, 40 million Americans said they were descended from Irish people; by 1990, the figure had jumped to 45 million and this year’s census may well mark another leap. Irish pride and nationalism have always been magnified in the United States. In her autobiography, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, the leader of the American Communist Party, described the attitudes of her Irish-born mother and American-born father: ‘Mama did not deny the faults or glorify the virtues of the Irish, as our father did. We were amused at this and often said, “Papa is more Irish than Mama and he never saw Ireland.” ’ Irish-Americans seem especially proud of their success, but they also cling to their feisty underdog image – even though there are 45 million of them.

The political machine Moynihan described may no longer be run by the Irish, but politicians still have to take them into account. In New York, an appearance at the St Patrick’s Day parade is mandatory. For Democrats, this has been tricky in recent years because the Ancient Organisation of Hibernians, which runs the event, won’t let the Irish Lesbian and Gay Organisation march under its own banner. Hillary Clinton, who’s running for Pat Moynihan’s old seat, marched this year in an alternative parade in Queens as well as in the official version. Politicians often try too hard to get the Irish vote. In No News at Throat Lake,[*] his account of a year spent working on a small-town Irish newspaper, Lawrence Donegan gleefully reports Newt Gingrich staging a visit to the Doherty Clan Centre on the Inishowen peninsula, where he was to be publicly presented with his family tree: he had to retreat when the clan chieftain told him they couldn’t trace it.

In the last ten years fifty places have started a St Patrick’s Day parade – among them Fairbanks, Albuquerque, Honolulu and Palm Beach. But how Irish does taking part in a parade make you? This is the concern of Irish America, which asks whether people who identify themselves as Irish-Americans have distinctive ways of behaving or thinking, five, six or seven generations down from the period of heaviest immigration around the time of the Famine.

Reginald Byron is a fourth-generation American with some Irish in him. He has lived in the UK since 1970, including 15 years in Northern Ireland. He became interested in Irish America when some of his Northern Irish students asked him, after a summer spent in Atlantic City, why people they met there said they were Irish, too. Having lived in the UK, he himself was struck by the ‘Irishness’ of the city of Albany in New York State, where some of his relatives lived. There, he and his team interviewed more than five hundred people who claimed Irish descent, collecting detailed questionnaires from about half of them. Where the census just asks for ancestry, Byron probed for evidence of Irishness, or rather traits that people consider to be Irish. Albany has a particularly high concentration of Irish Americans, but Byron found little to suggest that for most people being Irish is anything more than a lifestyle choice. A few belong to the AOH or even Noraid, but the majority have merely a surface allegiance: they choose Irish names for their children, wear the ‘green’, or eat corned beef and cabbage on St Patrick’s Day – and describe themselves as Irish on the census form.

This year’s census, currently being collected, asks ‘What is your ancestry or ethnic origin?’ and leaves two lines for the answer. This wouldn’t be enough for the person in Irish America whose great-grandparents were Irish, Italian, Armenian, German, English, Scottish and French. It’s clear that across the country, people single out their Irish forebears, but Byron concludes that, in most cases, people’s descriptions of their ethnic origins are idiosyncratic and changeable – ‘like a reversible T-shirt saying “Irish for a Day” on one side and “Kuß mich, ich bin Schwabe” on the other’. The Irish themselves are so assimilated, and the icons of Irishness have penetrated the culture so deeply, that St Patrick’s Day has become a celebration of the common immigrant experience: ‘Nothing,’ Byron says, ‘could be more American than to be a little “Irish”, especially on St Patrick’s Day.’

All this might seem pretty harmless. But Byron believes that one effect of multiculturalism has been to force people to choose an ethnie – a politically and socially divisive practice. In the case of Irish America this has established the myth that the Famine created the Irish diaspora, putting in place an interestingly popular ‘sectarian, quasiracial, 19th-century nation-building image of the Irish as Celts, Catholics and children of the Famine’. Some states have even mandated that the Famine should be included when genocide is studied in high school.

‘Almost anything you can say’ about Irish Americans ‘is both true and false’, the historian of Irish America Dennis Clark has warned. This isn’t helped by the fact that it has been notoriously difficult to follow the progress of Irish immigrants after their arrival in the United States. The census fails again here. People were not asked where they were born until 1850; only in 1880 was an ancestry question asked at all. Later, the results were comprehensively fiddled so that more immigrants could be admitted from Northern Europe at the expense of those from the South and East. Another problem is that the census has never been allowed to ask about religion – which leaves the Irish statistically indivisible.

A majority of descendants of Famine-era immigrants have married out, and by 1980, at least 74 per cent of Irish Americans were also something else – they were more likely to marry someone of English than of Irish stock. And, as Byron reminds us, in the country as a whole, up to two thirds of people of Irish descent are not Catholics. This is, in part, because many of the 800,000 Irish immigrants to arrive in America in the thirty years from 1815 were Ulster Protestants. In the late 19th century, their descendants and those of Protestants from the south of Ireland began calling themselves ‘Scotch Irish’ to differentiate themselves from the growing Catholic population. In the 1990 census six million people described themselves as Scotch-Irish.

Byron criticises both scholars and popular writers for concentrating on the mainly Catholic ethnic enclaves of New York, Boston, Philadelphia and Chicago and ignoring everywhere else. In The Irish Diaspora in America (1976), Lawrence McCaffrey described the Irish as ‘pioneers of the American ghetto’ and Byron believes that this has become the stereotype for all Irish immigrants, when in fact things were different elsewhere. In Albany, for example, immigrants were welcomed. There were few of the ‘No Irish Need Apply’ signs that were displayed in Yankee Boston or New York. Rather than huddling together under the skirts of the Church and Party against attacks by Nativists and Protestants (often the same people), Irish Catholic immigrants were welcomed, found allies in the Democratic Party and flourished.

This, not urban deprivation, was the common experience. By 1980, a higher proportion of people in Oklahoma City and Kansas City reported Irish ancestry than in Philadelphia, while Seattle, San Diego and Atlanta ranked above New York. ‘Myths notwithstanding,’ Byron writes, ‘they were not left behind, stuck in the ghettos, and stereotyped and despised. At least not most of them, and not for long.’ But the dominant image of the Irish American was based on the minority, the urban Irish Catholic settlers. When McCaffrey’s book was reissued in 1997 he changed the title to The Irish Catholic Diaspora in America, since this version of Irish American culture was the one that had persisted.

By 1844, 90 per cent of New York’s Irish Catholics were Democrats. By 1860, a larger number of people born in Ireland lived in New York than in Dublin (more than 200,000) and it had become the world’s largest Irish city. They were discriminated against. They had to put up with the worst conditions, the worst jobs, and had the furthest to go to reach economic safety. Many of those who came to New York stayed put because they didn’t have the money to move on. They were the most visible immigrants and have been the easiest to trace for historians, many of whom have followed them banging a political drum of one sort or another. As Moynihan put it, ‘the Irish were the one oppressed people on earth the American Protestants could never quite bring themselves wholeheartedly to sympathise with.’ A plaque on the first St Patrick’s Cathedral in what real estate agents now call ‘Nolita’ in Manhattan commemorates the stand Bishop Hughes took against a mob threatening to burn down his church in 1844. The defensive amalgamation of Irish, Catholic and Democrat extended into other eastern cities and towns (though not all, and not all the time).

Byron concentrates on Americans whose descendants arrived generations ago. But immigrants have kept coming, although in much smaller numbers, often challenging, however subtly, the received idea of the Irish immigrant. Even Frank McCourt. Between them, Angela’s Ashes and ’Tis have sold more than five million copies in the United States – and ’Tis has only just come out in paperback.[†] McCourt and his brothers have had their lives recorded for the movies, and anyone writing a book with any kind of Irish theme must try to get a blurb or an introduction from Frank, or any other McCourt.

McCourt has created a new Irish-American paradigm. The enemy is no longer the British but the Irish Catholic Church and the Irish economy; and the hero is the United States. The conditions McCourt describes in Limerick could hardly have been any worse, so America could hardly have failed to be better. It was, and McCourt is clearly grateful. The nationalism of McCourt’s father looks ridiculous and irrelevant when set alongside his neglect of his family. McCourt has been a street urchin, a busboy, an army grunt, a student, a teacher and more. He even managed to emigrate from the United States to Ireland and back again, which is a minor demographic feat in itself. Now he is a millionaire. The books are described by their publishers as memoirs, which has annoyed some people. Roy Foster’s review in the New Republic was entitled ‘’Tisn’t’. But however unlikely his powers of recall or underdrawn his characters, McCourt’s books and manner are engaging.

The historian Richard White describes his book as an ‘anti-memoir’. White, who teaches history at Stanford, has traced the story of another post-Independence immigrant – his mother. Sarah Walsh emigrated to the United States from County Kerry in 1936. When she was living in Chicago, she dropped the ‘h’ from Sarah because people laughed at the way she pronounced the letter. In Remembering Ahanagran: Storytelling in a Family’s Past (named for the townland she came from), White compares his mother’s stories to documentary sources in order to ‘create a conversation between my mother’s stories and my history in a way that shows what a difficult and tangled thing we do when we tell stories about the past’. ‘I am a historian,’ White says, and he does not let us forget it. ‘History is the enemy of memory,’ he adds, and we aren’t allowed to forget that either. Being forced to think about the veracity of a memory deflates it. The difference between myth and fact isn’t something most readers of Angela’s Ashes are going to worry about.

Sara Walsh came to the United States to rejoin her father in a settled, if unhappy, Irish-American household. In 1942 she met Harry White, a Jewish Harvard graduate. Daringly, they married. White’s life was defined by the imprisonment of his grandfather in 1929. Caught along with two Irishmen in a contracting scam, Samuel White took the fall before an Irish judge. This particular Irishman was well enough established to be one of the discriminators, part of a history that is much more rarely told and isn’t developed here. Like many other Irish women immigrants, Sara was able to improve her position economically and socially – at the same time that Harry White was being designated an ‘NA’, or ‘non-Aryan’, at Harvard. The book comes alive when the two meet, and the accounts of Sara and Harry together are more interesting and suggestive than those of Sara alone.

‘The Irish diaspora isn’t what it used to be,’ warns the poet Eamonn Wall, part of a new generation of immigrants: the well-educated ‘New Irish’ who came across in the 1980s. In the age of relatively cheap air travel many can commute, leavening the sense of exile (and reducing the tendency of immigrants to believe their home never changes after they leave). It makes assimilation more difficult, however. The poets and writers among these newcomers form part of a larger Irish community who might be critical of home but are unwilling to ingratiate themselves abroad. Wall includes in this group the poets Nuala Archer, Greg Delanty and Sara Berkeley, and the artists and musicians who congregated in the now defunct Sin-é café in New York’s East Village. Wall himself started out on his own in New York. After ten years, he moved with his wife and two children to Omaha, Nebraska, where he now teaches English at Creighton University and worries that he has deprived his children of their sense of place. His book, From the Sin-é Café to the Black Hills: Notes on the New Irish, includes criticism, personal essays and even a piece of fiction. Wall says his book is a hybrid because he is one, too. His interest is in the points at which Irish and Irish-American culture intersect and his study shows the possibility of escape from the enclosed and self-conscious boundaries of strict ethnicity – it might even make Reginald Byron cheer up a bit.

Wall is more concerned with what a writer chooses as subject-matter than with where he or she is from. He discusses the work of writers from a great variety of backgrounds: Brian Moore, Mary Gordon, Thomas McGonigle and Michael Stephens. Stephens’s work, he says, is best read alongside that of the African-American Trey Ellis, the Latina Sandra Cisneros and the Scot James Kelman, rather than other Irish-Americans. Stephens’s books, Season at Coole and The Brooklyn Book of the Dead, present a family enduring a back-to-front version of the American Dream. The Coole family goes to the suburbs but does not assimilate or succeed in any traditional sense. In The Brooklyn Book of the Dead the 16 Coole children gather to commemorate their father in the blasted Brooklyn ghetto in which they were brought up. Each is a bigger failure than the next. Emmett Coole’s ambition is to become the ‘oldest crackhead in history’. Stephens’s novels are, sadly, out of print in the US.

In the first entry in The Encyclopedia of the Irish in America, entitled ‘Achievement of the Irish in America’, Andrew Greeley describes the two major Irish immigrations to America: the first, mostly pre-Civil War, mostly to the South and mostly Protestant; the second, mostly to the North and the cities and mostly Catholic. Greeley writes that ‘the descendants of the second immigration are the most successful gentile ethnic group in America while the descendants of the first are the least successful.’ These figures must be a sock in the eye to any Irish Protestant happening on them, even if they can comfort themselves with the news that, their lack of ‘success’ notwithstanding, they are 1 per cent more likely to be happy than the Catholics.

Quite a few people might take exception to the entry by Grady McWhiney and Forrest McDonald on what they call ‘Cracker Culture’, the Celtic ways that Southerners picked up from their ancestors. Their piece finishes with a laundry-list of personality traits that obtained in both Celtic Britain and the Old South and that help explain why the South is different from the North. The American South and Celtic Britain ‘were leisure-oriented societies that fostered idleness and gaiety, where people favoured the spoken word over the written and enjoyed such sensual pleasures as smoking, drinking, fighting, gambling, fishing, hunting, talking and loafing’. The English and the Northerners, by contrast, ‘were just the opposite: imbued with a work ethic and commercial values, they were neater, cleaner, read and wrote more.’ This doesn’t sound like the Celts or English I know. But spending time in America certainly seems to encourage consideration of ancestry. Eamonn Wall said that he never thought about his nationality when he was growing up, and only began to consider it in the offices of the Immigration and Naturalisation Service in Manhattan just as he was committing himself to stay in America. Becoming an Irish exile, he felt for the first time part of a larger group of people. ‘When I left Ireland, I thought I was getting away from history; little did I know that I was walking right into the middle of a historical web from which there would be no escape.’

[*] Penguin, 272 pp., £6.99, 27 July, 0 14 027753 6.

[†] The paperback will be published in the UK next month by Flamingo.