- Irish Catholic Writers and the Invention of the American South by Bryan Giemza
Our understanding of the Irish Catholic presence in the American South has substantially changed over the last couple of decades due to scholarly investigations in a number of areas. The presumption of a solid “Scotch-Irish”—the usual term—hegemony has been modified by awareness that Catholic and Protestant identities in the north of Ireland and in Scotland were often fluid in the eighteenth century, that over the decades many nominal Irish Catholics morphed into Scotch-Irish Protestants because of the unavailability of churches of their own denomination in the Southern states, and that there were hosts of other migratory forgettings and anomalies. Of course, one should always have been a little suspicious of a solid South thesis in a world shaped by Father Abraham Ryan, the region’s hugely popular poet laureate in the nineteenth century; Kate O’Flaherty Chopin, disruptive feminist and unconventional Catholic; Scarlett O’Hara, iconic Southern belle; and Flannery O’Connor (a distant relation of Margaret Mitchell, as it turns out), a writer who dominated the genre of the Southern short story. In the past, an American Catholicism that was both defensive and triumphalist occasionally drew attention to some of these matters, whereas the idea of a “Celtic South” enjoyed surprising (and disturbing) popularity in the 1980s. Albert S. Foley’s challenging 1950s study of the biracial Healys of Georgia—one of them the “second founder” of Georgetown University—introduced a complication in the received narrative of minimal Irish Catholic Southern presence but without changing the overall understanding of the matter.
What is new now is the emergence of a more mature and less belligerent examination of tangled histories. Brian Giemza is one of the most active scholars in this area with a previous study of Ryan (Poet of the Lost Cause [Knoxville, 2008], with Donald Robert Beagle) and an edited collection (Rethinking the Irish in the American South [Jackson, MS, 2013]). His present study recapitulates and greatly extends this theme with a wealth of material both secondary and archival on writers of Catholic Irish background in the South over the last two centuries. Some of these names will be unfamiliar even to those engaged with the subject; others are more canonical but here presented in a new light or with a reinvigorated analysis. In particular, Giemza’s sections on Lafcadio Hearn, Joel Chandler Harris, Flannery O’Connor, John Kennedy Toole (A Confederacy of Dunces, Baton Rouge, 1980), Cormac McCarthy (based on extensive archival work), Pat Conroy, and Anne Rice (an interview) offer new material. Again and again, Giemza presses his argument in engaging ways—not, for example, too readily accepting O’Connor’s dismissal of her Irish roots but teasing out her many evasions, omissions, and contradictions on the subject. Giemza’s book also acknowledges the changing context of Catholicism in the modern world and is by no means a pious reiteration of orthodoxy, even if his own religious position seems to vacillate at times. His overall argument, then, is not that persons of Irish Catholic background invented the American South but [End Page 641] rather that they have contributed more to its formation than has been acknowledged and, in closing, that the Catholic element at least will continue as the Hispanic population of the region grows. If the book has a problem, it is because the author has so much to present that the narrative occasionally becomes overwhelming. Indeed, as Giemza acknowledges, “Space constraints have left more than one hundred pages of this manuscript on the cutting-room floor” (p. 273). We can expect to hear more from this investigative author.