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  • "A lengthening chain in the shape of memories"The Irish and Southern Culture
  • William R. Ferris (bio)

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Irish rockers U2 are committed fans of B.B. King and wrote the song "When Love Comes to Town" at his request. The song introduced King to important new rock audiences through his concerts and appearances with the band. Bono and Adam Clayton of U2, in Raleigh, North Carolina, 2009

photographed by Audrey Popa

[End Page 9]

"Blood is Thicker Than Water": Personal Ties to Ireland

To explore the relationship between Ireland and southern culture is for many southerners an intensely personal journey. My own family has Irish ancestry on both sides. Because of those ties, I have always felt an affinity for Irish history and culture. When I first read James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man in the late fifties as a student at Brooks School in North Andover, Massachusetts, Joyce and his protagonist Stephen Daedalus spoke to me in a deeply personal way. I embraced the book as a manifesto for my own rebellion from the web of politics, religion, and family that defined my life in the American South.

My love for Joyce grew during my studies as an English major at Davidson College and as a graduate student in English literature at Northwestern University, where I took courses on both Joyce and Yeats with Richard Ellman. While at Northwestern, I interviewed Irish poet, novelist, and biographer Padraic Colum, one of the leading figures of the Celtic Revival, about his memories of Joyce, Yeats, O'Casey, and other writers in the Irish Literary Renaissance. At the end of my interview, Colum reflected on the Irish and the American South: "People forget that there were two Irish immigrations into America. There was an eighteenth-century immigration, which showed itself in the southern cities, like Charleston. That was an immigration with capital … The second immigration was of people who had nothing but their hands … Ireland and the South have a lot in common."1

At Richard Ellman's suggestion, I spent my 1965–66 academic year at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland, where I wrote a thesis on rebellion in the work of James Joyce. During that year I immersed myself in Irish literature, and as a Rotary Foundation Fellow I spoke about my roots in the American South, played my guitar, and sang southern folksongs to Rotary Clubs throughout Ireland. I found myself searching to understand how Irish and southern worlds connected in my own life.

While in Ireland, I met Francis Utley, a medieval literature scholar who taught in the Department of English at Ohio State University. Utley was doing research on Irish folktales at the Irish Folklore Commission in Dublin. Seamus Dellargy directed the Commission and housed Utley in a bed and breakfast in a home on Kenilworth Square owned by Mrs. Pat Condren, where I lived for the year. Over breakfast in Mrs. Condren's home, I complained to Utley that his field of English literature was too narrow. It did not permit the study of folktales, ballads, and the blues, all of which were close to my heart. Utley listened to me patiently and said, "My friend, you should be studying folklore." It was a moment that changed my life and for which I will always be grateful. Utley described the folklore program at the University of Pennsylvania, where I completed my PhD three years later. He [End Page 10] also knew Joyce's work intimately, having read a banned copy of Ulysses smuggled into the United States while he was a graduate student at Harvard.


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Irish poet, novelist, and biographer Padraic Colum (here, in 1959), one of the leading figures of the Celtic Revival, on the Irish and the South: "People forget that there were two Irish immigrations into America. There was an eighteenth-century immigration, which showed itself in the southern cities, like Charleston. That was an immigration with capital … The second immigration was of people who had nothing but their hands … Ireland and the South have a lot in common."

Photograph courtesy of the...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1534-1488
Print ISSN
1068-8218
Pages
pp. 9-29
Launched on MUSE
2011-02-12
Open Access
No
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