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  • Irish Catholic Writers and the Invention of the American South by Bryan Giemza
  • David T. Gleeson (bio)
Irish Catholic Writers and the Invention of the American South. By Bryan Giemza. (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2013. Pp. 361. Cloth, $49.95.)

Bryan Giemza has set out to put Irish Catholic writers at the center, rather than the periphery, in the creation of a distinct identity in the American South. Focusing on writers of Irish Catholic lineage born or who lived in the South, Giemza believes that the Irish “participated in engineering the mindscape of the South” and not merely as defined “others.” Indeed, because the Catholic Irish were “by nature somewhat outside the American cultural mainstream” as nineteenth-century America’s first immigration “problem,” they “helped invent for the South a regional mythos, an enduring literature, and a national image” (289, 22).

The majority of Giemza’s analysis naturally focuses on prominent twentieth- century writers such as Flannery O’Connor and Pat Conroy. Despite the twentieth-century emphasis, this book still has a lot to offer historians of the Civil War. A chapter dedicated to the antebellum era and the conflict itself provides valuable insight, for example, into the role of Irish American women in the propaganda efforts of the Confederacy. Most scholars know of Rose O’Neal Greenhow and her famous spying on behalf of the Confederacy in Washington, D.C., but Giemza signals the importance of her book My Imprisonment and the First Year of Abolition Rule at Washington, published in 1863, to Confederate identity. In it she used her Irish background to great effect, arguing that her Catholic ancestors never should have left Ireland, as oppressive as it was, to come to the United States, which had fallen under “Black Republican rule.” According to her, this rule had “[swept] from the New World every vestige of civil rights and freedom” (63). Giemza also introduces us to the mysterious (he has found very little biographical information on her) Florence J. O’Connor, whose novel The Heroine of the Confederacy appeared in Britain in 1864. The Louisiana-born O’Connor displayed her Irish sensibility with the “heroine” sending Catholic prayers to the Blessed Mother on behalf of the Confederacy and providing constant reminders of how slaves were treated “better” than the “poor whites” of northern and European cities.

O’Connor’s work had appeal after the war too, as it was republished in New Orleans in 1869. Giemza highlights that the Irish in the postwar South were good at championing the Lost Cause. Their Irish Catholic sense of defeat fit neatly with the Confederate one. Of course, one of the key architects of the Lost Cause was the ultra–Irish Catholic Father Abram Ryan, the famous “poet-priest of the Confederacy.” Giemza synopsizes the main points that he and coauthor Donald Beagle made in their excellent [End Page 609] biography of Ryan on his significance to the Lost Cause’s creation,1 but he also shows how Ryan’s influence has endured. Ryan’s poetry, for example, has again come to the fore in the recent debates and controversies about public displays of the Confederate battle flag.

One of those who read and absorbed Ryan’s poetry long after his death was Margaret Mitchell. Giezma reinforces the reality (especially significant in this sesquicentennial time) that Mitchell sought to undermine rather than perpetuate the myth of the Lost Cause as outlined in the film version of Gone with the Wind, a motion picture that still dominates the popular imagination in America and beyond. Indeed, she disliked aspects of the movie from its beginning, complaining about the film’s emphasis at the start on “Dixie” as the “land of Cavaliers and Cotton Fields” (122). But, while her Irish background and knowledge of Irish history led her to challenge many Lost Cause myths, it also led her to endorse the Reconstruction Ku Klux Klan as the proper means of self-defense for people fighting an “oppressive” government. Ironically, the Klan, virulently anti-Catholic in its second incarnation, was inspired back to life by Thomas Dixon Jr.’s novel The Clansman and D. W. Griffith’s movie based on it...


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pp. 609-611
Launched on MUSE
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