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Into The Mainstream

George O’Brien
After the Flood: Irish America 1945-1960, James Silas Rogers and Matthew J O’Brien (eds), Irish Academic Press. 223 pp, £45, ISBN: 978-01716529873 Paris has its Avenue du Président Kennedy, Antwerp its Kennedytunnel. There’s an Avenue Kennedy in Istanbul. The Piazzale John F. Kennedy in Rome is tucked away in the city’s EUR area, an ambitious show project initiated by Mussolini – not all that appropriate perhaps, but still. And of course there’s Berlin’s John-F.-Kennedy-Platz. The Hague’s President Kennedylaan doesn’t sound like anything to write home about in Joseph O’Neill’s Neverland – “a broad monotonous thoroughfare where the buildings of the Dutch secret service were said to be located” – but here’s another capital city where the name of the most famous Irish-American is given a certain civic place. This has not happened in Dublin. With all due respect to the residents living in the various Kennedy-named streets out by Fox and Geese, no street downtown has had its name changed to commemorate Kennedy. The correspondence lately in The Irish Times about whether or not to rename Victoria Quay suggests that it may be premature to expect JFK to be given something of his public due. The country at large, of course, has honoured the Kennedy name in all sorts of ways. All the same, its absence from Dublin’s cityscape does rather stick out, and while it would be stretching a point to take the omission as a sign of the uncertain relations between Ireland and Irish-America, it’s also tempting to think of it as an unconscious expression of that uncertainty. For if, as Winston Churchill had it, England and America are two countries separated by a common language, one conclusion suggested by the essays in James Rogers and Matthew O’Brien’s After the Flood is that Ireland and Irish-America are two communities separated by a common heritage. The book’s main editorial thrust is to offer a corrective to the notion of “ethnic fade”. According to that well-attested notion, post-World War II America saw the major European ethnic groups – Irish, Italians, Jews: peoples of the flood, as the book’s title would have them ‑ shed their ethnic colouration with the help of educational opportunities made available through the GI Bill (which financed the education of ex-servicemen), the job security offered by corporate America (whereby scrivening became the new navvying), the growth of the suburbs (with the single-family home becoming the essential embodiment of the American dream) and the increasing ability of Joe Lunchbucket to entertain a geographical sense of not just the country’s size and differences but also of its oneness (thanks to the growth in car ownership and to the growth of the interstate road system ‑ Eisenhower’s imitation of the autobahn and his most lasting monument). The result was a massive expansion of the middle class and a corresponding surge of upward mobility, accompanied by a development of the consumer sector in the form of labour-saving domestic appliances and, the cultural achievement which seemingly sealed the deal, television. Those groups which not so long before were viewed as barbarians at the gates were now as welcome as the flowers in May to the mainstream, having proven themselves in various ways during the war years (and having sown the seeds of the recent cult of “the greatest generation”, in part a white man’s compensatory fantasy the need for which during the Clinton boom is intriguing – a nostalgia for militarism?). According to ethnic fade theory, with the days of “No Irish Need Apply” having been, as it were, officially declared over, there was no longer any need for “Irish” as a social or civic marker any more. Ethnicity became a matter of harmless cultural practices – singing and dancing and observing saints’ days, observances whose harmlessness was assured largely because of the Americanised modes in which the commemorations took place, modes which continue to constitute a repertoire of cartoonish appeals such as cheerleading, green beer and the like, all sanctioned as authentic by the custodians of civic rectitude and clean living, the clergy, the police and local politicos. Hang on there now, say Rogers and O’Brien. It would no doubt be very nice, in some eyes, if the transition took place with the relative seamlessness ascribed to it by the adherents of ethnic fade. As far as Irish-America in the immediate post-war years goes, however, this was not the case; or rather it was the case, kind of, but not exactly. The picture that emerges from the essays in After the Flood is certainly more mixed than the myth of a more perfect union which underlies ethnic fade. It would be hard to call it a picture even. It’s more like a jigsaw, where some of the pieces could have been cut more precisely and the final picture is not quite as complete as it might have been (may I be forgiven for a crude adaptation of the editors’ conception of “the mosaic nature of Irish America”? – classier, no doubt, but unnecessarily redolent of the institutional). This tends to be the case with collections of essays generally, and is more likely to be the case when the collection takes in many different disciplines – After the Flood ranges from musical history through literature, politics, film, sociology and cultural studies. It’s not that such widespread coverage of the topic leads to incoherence or inconclusiveness. What makes the overall picture difficult to discern, paradoxically, is that many of the pieces rely largely on documentary sources and not enough on analytic engagement. In Matthew J. O’Brien’s account of how the Ancient Order of Hibernians averted impending extinction by identifying itself rather militantly with the contemporary struggle for civilisation – the domestic American version of the Cold War that is – there is a disappointing reluctance to view AOH rhetoric in a context larger than its immediate occasion. The editors claim that such an ideological overture is a “linking [of] the Irish with American civil religion”. It’s also possible to see such AOH pronouncements as “the choice at the moment is between Christ and Anti-Christ” as a form of opportunism by which to restore the institution’s flagging fortunes. The order seems to protest its new-found civil faith too much, as though it won’t be taken seriously unless what it says is over the top. Its new-found mission “is one which can save the world and preserve us here” no less: and “[w]e Hibernians must rally to this glorious command”. The extravagance of this ambition, not to mention the conversion of “we Hibernians” into a portmanteau term, strike the critical ear as a posturing and unreasoning species of flag-waving. The point is made that in order to substantiate its bona fides, the AOH made it clear that it was all for what it called “the vigorous championship of all the democratic freedoms”. Alas the manner in which what it preached was practised is something we learn less about. There is no sense of whether the rosary-rattling element of the order’s vision contributed in any way to persuading Senator Joe McCarthy that there was indeed an audience for his uncivil ranting. Nor do we discover if the AOH was reassured by the legislative innovations of Nevada Democrat Senator Pat McCarran, a son of Irish America known as “the Senator from Madrid” on account of his admiration of Franco and whose Internal Security Act (1950) took a particularly draconian view of immigrants and was subsequently found by the Supreme Court to be in large part unconstitutional. Neither is there anything to indicate that the AOH’s embrace of democratic values had an effect on the Irish-American electorate, or whether the likes of McCarthy and McCarran had their liberal opposite numbers. Were AOH claims that “Christian civilisation is reaching the crossroads where a struggle with the rival is inevitable” conducive to the landmark Supreme Court 1954 decision of Brown vs Board of Education (which desegregated public schools)? It would be worth knowing. If the AOH had problems in becoming a major ideological player, as reticence regarding its ultimate influence seems to suggest, one reason is that it appears to have conflated the Christian and the secular, as in a statement such as “Hibernians should take the lead in civic celebrations that develop the true American way of life, celebrations such as Columbus Day, Saint Patrick’s Day, and all the church holy days.” Leaving aside the idea that America is a place where one “true” way of life is even conceivable, the expectation that Irish-America is somehow peculiarly qualified to establish the tone and mode of thought appropriate to the times is also debatable. The reason for scepticism is the strong alignment of Irish-America and Catholicism. The Church, it might be argued, was more important in this time of elaborate demographic transition for being a resource with which to counter the assimilationist blandishments of post-war material culture. With its gaze fixed on higher things, on principles and practices which were unchanging, it appears to have been thought of as the custodian of the ethos of difference which could mirror and substantiate ethnic traces, and thereby could provide a ground upon which Americanisation might be experienced as being elective (and selective) rather than compulsory. Whether the Church’s part in developing ethnic self-consciousness is uniquely the experience of Irish-America or whether it played a similar role for Italian- or German-Americans, their organisations and ideological apologists, is of course beyond the remit of After the Flood. Given the Church’s universality, though, perhaps the thinking of Irish-America’s co-religionists might have merited a passing remark. In any case, the designation “Catholic” has an overwhelmingly homogenising effect on Irish-America, in such a way that strains and separate tendencies within the community are inclined to be subsumed under clerical authority and doctrinal rigidity. The postwar period was also a golden age for the Church, something it has not enjoyed all that often and that it is easy to forget. In America, it experienced a greater than ever degree of acceptance and respectability, and under the leadership of Cardinal Spellman took special care that its status be preserved by siding with the most conservative tendencies in public life and cultural discourse, actively assuming the role the AOH envisaged for “Hibernians” but also ensuring that it did not overstep the constitutional separation of church and state. Through its independent schools and hospitals it provided shelter from the secular mishmash of America at large, with which its largely immigrant adherents had never felt particularly comfortable. In its external relations with that same diverse and complicated America, the Church was able to reassure the powers that be that it could, in effect, function as a shadow government of the faithful, and as such would make it its business that the said faithful would not be led into temptation, particularly of a political or ideological stripe. Its prescriptive paternalism provided a model of order that many a household could adopt with righteous conviction. Another way of putting this is that the Church, in its social standing as a “rock” of continuity, represented tradition, that essential building block in the construction of ethnicity. In one way or another, many of the contributions to After the Flood have tradition as at least their subtext, or sometimes as a be all and end all, as in Charles Shannon’s rather strained account of the novels of the understandably forgotten Edward McSorley, whose prose is to the imagination what paint drying is to spectator sport. (Oddly enough, though, he did mentor, briefly, a young John Cassavetes, a fascinating conjunction of immigrant sensibilities and generations, though Shannon doesn’t develop that point.) More interesting is Margaret Lee’s digest of her research on the far southside Chicago suburb of Beverly Hills, an enclave of what the author refers to as the expanding Irish-American “upper class”. This contribution not only depicts Irish-American communal self-fashioning in cultural terms, largely by means of their St Patrick’s Day parades and the ersatz paraphernalia by which ethnic pride is articulated. (That way of putting it sounds snobbish I know, but I don’t think the mediums of ethnic expression could have been expected to be anything but ersatz at the time given the likelihood that Irish-Americans had very little grounding in their history or heritage. Communities invented themselves, which is both an expression of there being no alternative and a very American thing to do.) Among these paraphernalia are green carnations, though I don’t think it is their association with Oscar Wilde that is being invoked, together with effigies of a bird called “the Kilaloo, a native species of Ireland”. Quare hawks to one side, this article’s main interest is its account of the newly suburbanised’s siege mentality where racial integration is concerned. Indeed, so insecure is this Irish-American community that “Faced with the possibility of African-American neighbors, Beverly Hills residents were unable to unite across ethno-religious divisions in the 1940s and 1950s” – meaning that “Irish” Catholics declined to have much to do with “American” Protestant neighbours sharing their racial outlook. Constructions of Irishness and the transmogrification of an historically grounded conception of tradition they entail reach beyond communal boundaries, as many of the contributions point out. These constructions have two distinct but closely related aspects. One is the version produced in America, with The Quiet Man in the van once more. Part of the point of Edward A Hagan’s discussion of the movie is the nature of the Ireland which the John Wayne character (Sean Thornton) expected to find on arrival. This place is a never-never land, which is not only a predictable and unimaginative ideal of the old country but locates Ireland as a place outside conflict. As such it’s an antidote to Thornton’s history of pugilistic belligerence. But it’s also a place with an appeal which can be readily comprehended in the Cold War, the kind of post-conflict space God-fearing pioneers were decimating those pesky injuns for in western upon western. This characterisation of Ireland as the timeless land, the realm that escaped the Zeitgeist, the place that’s not trying to be modern, whose signature is the welcome and whose byword is laughter (which is what everybody who has undergone the immigrant experience wants to hear), is examined in an article by James Silas Rogers, which begins promisingly but runs out of steam due to inherent weaknesses in the textual evidence cited, and in Stephanie Rains’s contribution on the Bridey Murphy phenomenon. The what? I hadn’t heard of it either. It’s a book published in 1956 by one Morey Bernstein called The Search for Bridey Murphy, “in which a Colorado housewife apparently recalled, under hypnosis, a previous life in nineteenth-century Ireland”. It flew off the shelves and “became a national sensation”. Obviously, a clever idea, combining the temporal element of “going back” with modern interest in hypnosis, much in the public mind as an enemy tactic. In this text, apparently, brainwashing is domesticated to become whitewashing. Not only that, but as Rains points out, works of this nature were also helpful in projecting an image of Ireland endorsed by the tourist industry at home and abroad. As James Rogers puts it, “for Americans obsessively fearful of communist infiltration and the threat of nuclear attack, and – in the eyes of many – stampeding towards conformity and blandness, the Ireland of the American imagination presented an attractive alternative." Foreign and safe, one element offsetting the drawbacks of the other: an industry was born, its ideological hour come round at last. Part of the record here too though is that the image the tourist industry presented was a native creation. In Rains’s words: “Throughout the 1950s the Irish government and other tourist authorities were vigorously promoting an idyllic and unmaterialistic representation of Ireland precisely in order to commodify Irishness in the pursuit of foreign-exchange earnings and economic growth.” Throughout this period also many Irish writers contributed to magazines such as Holiday, most consistently Sean O’Faolain. Not that availing of such outlets is to be begrudged; it’s just a pity that After the Flood was not able to assess the part played by more nuanced views of that complicated entity, Irish reality. There’s another, alternative, sense in which this book looks at tradition, and that’s in terms of actual connections between Ireland and America, particularly cultural ones. Musician and musicologist Gearóid Ó hAllmhuráin details the reception and careers of Irish traditional musicians in New York and Chicago during the period. Sara Brady documents the background to the playing of the 1947 football All-Ireland final at New York’s Polo Grounds and the responses of the natives (Irish and American) to it. Troy D Davis deals with attempts by an out-of-office de Valera to interest Irish-America in an anti-partition campaign. This initiative was undertaken in the years of the interparty government, whose response is also recorded. Irish-America proved as indifferent to the issue as it did to a 1950 visit to the US by Sir Basil Brooke (later Viscount Brookeborough) – the account of which, by the way, is the only time that the other Irish-America, the Scots-Irish, comes into view even remotely in the book (despite the group’s recent emergence as an object of scholarly interest). These three articles are thoroughly readable and worthy in their way. But again there’s little inclination to follow through. We don’t really find out what impact traditional music had on Irish-America, as far as producing American-born exponents of the idiom goes for instance. Similarly with Gaelic Games: was the 1947 All-Ireland an inspiration or a nine-day wonder? Was indifference to Dev’s speechifying reproduced in response to the Border campaign later on in the fifties? No doubt the answer to these questions is yes and no, just as it most likely is to the question of the actual extent of ethnic fade, of which there was a certain but not necessarily a conclusive or definitive amount. Ethnicity itself is a conceptual category, being a social, cultural and ideological hybrid, as chequered and labile in the American context as the experiences which it subsumes, it arguably goes against the grain of it to be too deterministic, or at least too essentialist, regarding its character. Perhaps seeing the immediate postwar Irish experience in the light of an analytical concept which goes beyond the ethnic – in class terms, for instance; and it’s a shame there isn’t anything about Irish-America and organised labour in After the Flood – would have made available richer analytical opportunities. Taking another tack, students of literature – and such students will find the book as a whole useful – may be surprised to find comparatively little attention devoted to literature. In addition to the contribution on Edward McSorley, we have Sally Barr Ebest’s consideration of Irish-American women’s writing during the years in question, which is more valuable for its sense of sociological context than for its literary analysis. But it should be noted that one of the most satisfying pieces in the book is Tony Tracy’s treatment of the perhaps unlikely subject of the police novels of William P McGivern, especially Rogue Cop and The Big Heat, though the article is divided between the written works and their film adaptations. Still, the best-known novel of the period, Edwin O’Connor’s The Last Hurrah (1956), gets just a passing mention from James Silas Rogers, and while Charles Fanning pays handsome tribute to the father of Irish Studies, John V Kelleher, he rather gives that critic’s article “Irish-American Literature and Why There Isn’t Any” the go-by.

Of course there is an Irish-American literature, and some contributions to it undoubtedly have a bearing on a study of the postwar period. A novel like Harry Sylvester’s Moon Gaffney (1947), something of a rant against the rigid orthodoxies of a complacent Catholic clergy, written from a left-wing Catholic standpoint, certainly merits a place here. Despite the qualifications, After the Flood provides much that is worth chewing on. Studies of any phase of Irish-American history, culture, experiences and challenges (interpretative and otherwise) are sufficiently few and far between that each new work has the effect of making the subject seem new and underexplored. Perhaps the point, after all, is not to make all the jigsaw pieces fit but to make sure as many as possible of them are available. In addition to the work it presents, After the Flood is also valuable for the renewed sense it provides of the amount of work that remains to be done on the many-faced character of that striking cultural orphan, Irish-America.


George O’Brien is Professor of English at Georgetown University, Washington. His publications include the noted memoir The Village of Longing.

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