Is there still a distinct Irish identity in America?
Irish-American Autobiography says yes, though it's often an indirect one. True, the age of heroic immigration is over, and today the term “Irish-American” almost always means an American of Irish descent. If the Irish long ago ceased to be America's largest ethnic group, they've nonetheless stayed among the most visible (not least because St Patrick's Day has been adopted by the nation at large). But for all the external trappings of Irishness, the terms, traditions, and nuances of that identity stay elusive.
Irish-American Autobiography opens a new window on the shifting meanings of Irishness over the twentieth century, by looking at a range of works that have never before been considered as a distinct body of literature. Opening with celebrity memoirs from athletes like boxer John L. Sullivan and ballplayer Connie Mack--written when the Irish were eager to put their raffish origins behind them--later chapters trace the many tensions, often unspoken, registered by Irish Americans who've told their life stories. New York saloonkeepers and South Boston step dancers set themselves against the larger culture, setting a pattern of being on the outside looking in. Even the classic 1950s TV comedy The Honeymooners speaks to the urban Irish origins, and the poignant sense of exclusion felt by its creator Jackie Gleason. Catholicism, so key to the identity of earlier generations of Irish Americans, has also evolved. One chapter looks at the painful diffidence of priest autobiographers, and others reveal how traditional Irish Catholic ideas of the guardian angel and pilgrimage have evolved and stayed potent down to our own time. Irish-American Autobiography becomes, in the end, a story of a continued search for connection--documenting an “ethnic fade” that never quite happened.
James Silas Rogers is the author of Northern Orchards: Notes from Places Near the Dead. His essays and poems have appeared in a wide range of journals, including New Letters, ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment, and Ruminate. He is the author of a chapbook of poems, Sundogs (Parallel Press), and his poems have been featured in such journals as Poetry East and South Dakota Review, and on Garrison Keillor's Writers Almanac. Rogers edits New Hibernia Review, an Irish Studies quarterly, and has published many articles on Irish-American writing.