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Expressing "Irishness" in Three Irish-American Autobiographies

From: New Hibernia Review
Volume 17, Number 2, Samhreadh/Summer 2013
pp. 103-118 | 10.1353/nhr.2013.0017

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Frank McCourt famously begins Angela's Ashes (1996) by declaring that a happy childhood is one that is "hardly worth your while." McCourt challenges the "ordinary miserable childhood" to compete with the Irish Catholic version, with the "poverty; the shiftless, loquacious alcoholic father; the pious defeated mother moaning by the fire; pompous priests; bullying schoolmasters; the English and the terrible things they did to us for eight hundred long years" (AA 11). He will go on to tell the reader about his specific miseries, drawn from the above list and rendered in heartbreaking detail. But the sweeping generalizations of his opening lines imply that the miserable Irish childhood is not his and his brothers' alone. It is, if not a universally experienced thing, at least a universally understood thing. His list of calamities seems drawn from stereotype, to be sure, but in McCourt's life all of those specters were very real entities.

Despite the manner in which McCourt frames his miserable list, those stereotypical elements are not what make his narrative Irish. To be sure, Irish-American literature has often dealt, in fiction and nonfiction, with the devastation of poverty, substance abuse, and the domination of the Catholic church. In the late-twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, when Irish Americans fill prominent roles in all areas of American society, and portrayals of Irish-Americans do not depend solely on stereotype, how does "Irish" remain a cultural category that can be seen and understood?

In three recent autobiographical texts, "Irishness" is shown to be a condition that the authors must negotiate, a process that in many ways resembles the process by which the Irish have assimilated into the mainstream in the United States. Frank McCourt thinks of Ireland as the place that spawned his troubles, but his lyrical black humor belies his purported hatred of the place. In her 2001 memoir Crossing Highbridge, Maureen Waters examines how Irish heritage shaped her personality and her response to her son's wild life and early death. In Joe Queenan's Closing Time (2009), the least self-consciously Irish of the three texts examined here, the author chronicles his brutal upbringing in the housing projects of Philadelphia at the hands of a violent, alcoholic father and an uninterested mother. Queenan's frequent references to his family's Irish heritage—which may seem on the surface to be incidental—form a pattern that illuminates how ethnicity plays a role in his situation. In each of these books, the authors associate key elements of their upbringing with their ethnicity. Paralysis (expressed as a general feeling of being stuck in place and helpless to do anything about it) and insularity (expressed as a lack of connection to the world outside the author's community) play destructive roles in the lives of all three children and their families. Despite these obstacles, each of the three authors is ultimately lifted from his or her situation through the art of storytelling, and all three indicate that this positive feature is a gift of their heritages as well.

McCourt, Waters, and Queenan all self-consciously fashion themselves as "Irish," authors, although Irish-American works have not always been included in the pantheon of ethnic American literature. If "ethnic studies" seeks, as Johnella Butler argues, to study the cultures of groups who have once been treated as inhuman, inferior, and lacking culture, or who have been legally excluded or included based on their culture, then the Irish in America certainly fall under this umbrella. Robin Cohen's comparative study proposes a list of criteria for naming a diaspora, and finds that the millions of person outside of Ireland claiming Irish descent do indeed fit the category. Cohen's criteria include a dispersal, often traumatic, from an original homeland; a "collective memory and myth about the homeland" and its idealization; a "strong ethnic group consciousness;" and the "possibility of a distinctive creative, and enriching life in host countries with a tolerance for pluralism." The Irish, says Cohen, not only fit this description, but because of the large numbers who left Ireland in response to the Great Famine, they can also be considered a "victim diaspora" along with the Jewish, African, Armenian...

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