E Martin Nolan as he surveys the Belfast Lough
I grew up well aware I was Irish-American. The hyphen was like a pride IV drip from which I could suck an ancestry into—no, from!—my blood. It was far older and richer than what American TV could offer, and alive. I was more than just another white guy: Catholic churches, schools and camps; Irish flags, Tommy Makem CDs, books on the Famine; tales of my great grandmother, in London, Ontario, uprooting orange flowers on the day the Orangemen marched; St. Anne’s Church for St. Patrick’s Day mass, after which the black mayor would declare himself one-day Irish; Nemo’s Bar in Corktown for the parade and the drinking. It was all very warm-feeling. As Thomas Lynch, in Booking Passage: We Irish and Americans, describes St. Patrick’s Day in Detroit: “the pipes rise and drums begin, we rise, all smiles, because it’s a great day for the Irish.”
Then I went to Ireland, where I learned two things. It took one month—maybe one bus ride—to know I wasn’t really Irish, and that I couldn’t be. I was there, ostensibly, to study Joyce and Irish Myth, but mostly I was there for nostalgia. Then we were on a bus in Belfast, touring areas connected to The Troubles. The tour guide mentioned that Van Morrison was in a group of kids who used to bully him and his friends back in his school days. Like I knew something, I asked was Van—a favourite of mine—Protestant or Catholic? The man replied with a shame-inducing scowl and something like, “What the bloody hell would it matter?” I had no idea.
Later on the bus stopped. Two kids were standing on the sidewalk, looking up at the bus. One maybe ten, the other maybe six. The older was talking to the younger. Slowly, the six-year-old looked up at the windows and gave us his middle finger. I doubt he could see me through the tinted windows, but that bird sent me right home to America.
All the streets we toured were overhung with patriotic bunting, but I can’t remember if that street boasted Union Jacks or Republican flags. I did know, though, that this wasn’t my conflict. I was a tourist there, with tenuous indirect connections, a St. Patrick’s Day Irish. I was what Thomas Lynch calls “the cartoon and caricature of what it means to be Irish and American.” I was, in fact, a white American like any other.
Still, I’d like to argue for the Irishness of the Irish-American. Take, by contrast, St. Patrick’s Day in Toronto: Hardly anyone wears green. The city boasts both a Corktown and a Cabbagetown, and while that heritage is still evident, the neighbourhoods do not boast Irishness like their American equivalents in Boston, Detroit, or Chicago. The more I consider this cross-Atlantic connection, the more it seems in the realm of idea rather than reality, producing an indirect, conjured pride. From a cynical perspective, a lot of it is just branding. It seems that’s how Guinness and Jameson’s think of it anyway.
Tom Berenger, American
Thomas Lynch, an undertaker, writer, and poet, found it easier to accept. Ireland “happened” to him “as a whole-body, blood-borne, core-experience.” He visited distant relatives there during college, and has split his time between America and Ireland ever since. His family history is similar to mine: our ancestors from West Clare moved to southeastern Michigan and did quite well. There’s a good chance he, or someone in his family, buried my grandparents. Like him, I visited a relative in Clare. I’ve seen the gravestone in San Francisco of my earliest known Irish immigrant ancestor. I know that he fought in the Civil War, yet on that bus ride I felt like “The American” played by Tom Berenger in The Field, as the film’s Irish saw him: A well-off, naive, misplaced Yankee looking to fill his nostalgia to the brim in the old country.
Lynch might chalk this up to a very modern resistance to cultural roots. He writes, “the young in West Clare become, like the young in Michigan, working tourists in a smaller world full of portable opportunities and multiple possibilities.” Perhaps I was missing something then, falling prey to the results of a “paradigm shift” that finds “ethnic identity … less a treasure, more a scourge.” Burial practices provide the undertaker with his best example. Golf bag urns (for golf nuts!) have replaced hardwood caskets, and as “with distanced communities of faith and family, the script has changed from the essentially sacred to the essentially silly.” Of course then it follows that one such as I, growing up in a silly age, could not hope to feel sincerely toward my roots.
As Lynch points out, this affliction moves the other way over the Atlantic as well. When I was in Dublin I saw a young poet named Paul Perry read from his debut collection, The Drowning of the Saints. He’d spent much time in the United States, and it showed in his writing. The book’s quite good, and judging by its reviews, quite daring in context. The book stands out because “Irish society and Irish art, like Irish Arts Councils, are conservative,” wrote Fred Johnston in Books Ireland. David Arnold claimed that Perry “displays a desire to experiment with form, something not common in Irish poetry.” The book is now ten years old, and I don’t know if these appraisals of Irish poetry still hold, but it is notable that Perry’s relatively experimental poems happen also to leave Ireland. In taking his poems outward, he also cut them from traditional formal chains.
That reveals the other side of Thomas Lynch’s observation. If it becomes harder to engage one’s roots, it becomes easier to engage the wider world. Thus, Perry is able to draw a line “from Donegal / to Down South” via a “banjo with its bones/ made of ghosts.” He can pray to the American Dexter Gordon, describe the American highway as “an unending kaleidoscope / a blurring, ever-moving/ river of light.” He can declare, falling out of love in Chicago, “we could have been anywhere,/ but we were neither here nor there.” A poet of the then newly-fierce “Celtic Tiger” Ireland, Perry could come to America by choice, and return freely. His roots were loose.
It is not as if Thomas Lynch, who first crossed the Atlantic in 1970, lacked choice. He chose to, and could afford to, reconnect to his roots, actively and thoroughly. In doing so, he chose to make into a reality what remains to most Irish-Americans an idea of Ireland. As such, he is in a position to point out to his American cousins the flaws of his second (or is it ancestral?) home. His book retains a later-generation immigrant’s mythic respect for the homeland: “Still, looking out the window my ancestors looked out of … I think nothing in the world has changed at all. The same fields, the same families …” Lynch is well entrenched in Ireland at this point. He was willed a family home there, and yet his gaze, like Perry’s banjo, will always be a cross-Atlantic one. He could’t choose away his well-established Michigan roots. So he chose—and maintained—a dual identity available to very few.
Perry’s poems, meanwhile, never totally leave home either. Ireland—Wicklow, Oisín, etc—is represented throughout, and his observations of America are very much those of an outsider. There is an inevitable air to the book’s homebound ending. “Weakly Home,” instructs that, when returning, home might be “weakly resembling a photograph / you once carried in your wallet,” but that one should still “welcome the place with open arms.” The Drowning of the Saints ends with “After the Cabaret.” The poem completes the homecoming:
Early morning I head for home.
The clocks strike five, it’ll soon be bright.
Though the light in the hotel still burns,
The cabaret is finally over.
Perry follows this with a bit of Irish pastoral:
The farmers are already on their way to market.
People go to church, quiet and old.
From towers the bells ring out earnestly,
And a prostitute with wild hair
Still wanders around, cold and without sleep.
The first three lines resemble Lynch’s more poetic waxing—“I think nothing in the world has changed at all”—as does the contrasting, tone-deflating image that follows. The rhyme between “old” and “cold” emphasizes the simultaneity of (old) romance and (cold) reality. Likewise, Lynch has lived in Ireland, so he writes lovingly of it, but also unflinchingly points out its less quaint qualities, church abuse chief among them (Booking Passage was written just before the bank abuse Ireland endured in the Great Recession).
On a bus in Belfast, getting flicked off by a six-year-old and scowled at by an old man, that kind of well-rounded perspective was not available to me. It had to be earned, lived, and I wasn’t going to live there. Ireland was just an idea. It was an important idea, with real history behind it, and it shaped my concept of myself drastically. In the end Irish-American, especially for us in the third or fourth generation, is a subset of white American, with all the perks and complications that go with it.
Maybe the hyphen needs to be rethought. Could I change the order, from Irish-American to American-Irish? Thomas Lynch describes his grandfather, born in Michigan, as identifiably Irish, but “prouder still to be American.” Lynch remembers him praying for his Irish cousins whom he’d never meet in a land he’d never visit. It was a place far off, prayed to and mythic.
I can’t join him in saying I’m “proud to be American”—I can’t even say what that would mean—but I can say I’m way more American than I am Irish. A six-year-old in Ireland taught me that, and it was a relief. Pride aside, being American is profound enough (and living in Canada only adds to it). No need adding Ireland to the mix. Don’t get me wrong, I will continue to consume Irish books, music and drink at a biased rate (for the most part passing on the food). I am following The Town Crier’s Irish theme this month with great interest, but I do so knowing that what connects me to that place is more idea than reality. That tour guide, who could care less about a musician’s religious affiliation, taught me it was best not to mistake the two.
E Martin Nolan writes poetry and non-fiction. He’s an associate editor at The Puritan, where he also publishes interviews and reviews. His essays and poems have appeared in Lemonhound, Contemporary Verse 2,, The Rusty Toque, and Eminem and Rap, Poetry, Race (from McFarland Books), among others. He teaches at the University of Toronto. You might know him as Ted.